Amidst double-barreled crisis, give Tommy an extension

When Tommy Thompson was named interim president of the University of Wisconsin System eight months ago, there were a lot of people who guessed that he would prove to be such a good fit that his tenure would prove longer rather than shorter.

There was no way that the former four-term governor was going to be a caretaker keeping the seat warm. That has proven to be the case. Thompson is a natural leader, who is seasoned enough to make common cause with the governor, key legislative leaders and campus chancellors.

His political instincts tell him where to weigh in, such as pushing for the 75% in-person instruction for the next school year, such as quickly making UW’s 26 campuses open for COVID testing and vaccination, and such as making nursing and other health care students available for emergency COVID care.

His alacrity in dealing with big issues can ruffle bureaucratic feathers, but he has the energy and political capital to push through to good outcomes.

Further, he appears to be somewhat in sync with Gov. Evers. Thompson asked for an additional $100 million in university spending in the state budget after years of no increases. Armed with unexpected revenues, Evers topped Tommy by putting $190 million in his budget. The final increase will be up to the legislature, hopefully on a bi-partisan basis.

There is much good reason to not switch university leaders at this time. We are right in the middle of two “wars” – one the biggest public health battle in the history of the state, the other a deep fiscal crisis for the state and therefore for the university, too. Tommy is fully engaged in both monumental crises. It’s just not a good time to bring in a newcomer. UW-Madison alone put its pandemic-related losses at $320 million by June 30.

The search process for the next president probably should not start until the air clears on COVID restrictions and the hurting economy – at least a half year out. The search by the regents for a new president will take another six months at least. That could add up to another year or so for Thompson.

The regents could extend him a year so as he has the standing to make things happen “in the interim,” while they find their next president.

Note that Evers’s appointees to the Board of Regents will be in the majority.

The UW System is still in need of a high-level commission to look at a wide range of strategic issues. That should happen under the leadership of the next president. Ideally, by then there will be some level of normality in a post-COVID world. Whatever the level of recovery, the UW will be a very different place going forward:

  • Enrollment, except in Madison, will be lower with fewer eighteen year olds graduating from high school.
  • The System’s footprint will shrink, even though modernized facilities will replace some badly outdated buildings.
  • In-person classes will return, but virtual learning has taken deep root and will be a big part of future offerings on every campus.
  • There will be consolidation of majors, courses, bricks and mortar and possibly campuses.

The best contribution coming from our interim president is that he is reconnecting the entire state with the System. Tommy thinks about the whole state from our flagship campus that is dropping back in a number of important rankings such as research activity to the other twenty-five campuses that are fighting sharp enrollment declines, coupled with frozen tuition.

Tommy is proving to be a sound bridge to a repositioned University of Wisconsin. He has proven the right choice for navigating the current turmoil.

The smaller system will remain a world-class entity that needs world-class leadership now and going forward.

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