UW System Interim President Tommy Thompson resigns
Tommy Thompson, Interim President of UW System resigns from his post, starting March 18.
He announced his imminent departure from the UW board on Friday, as the search committee tasked with finding a permanent president expects he will appoint a hiring in February.
“I was honored to be invited by the board of regents to take over as chairman of the system, especially during what could have been its darkest time,” Thompson wrote in his resignation letter. “While posing challenges on many fronts, we have worked together to continue to provide the quality of education our students deserve and parents expect. “
Thompson said he was happy with what he had accomplished in his role and was sending his resignation letter to give the board and system staff time to prepare for the onboarding process. of the next president.
Thompson has said throughout his 18-month tenure that he will stay in the role for as long as the board asks him to, but no longer. His setting a start date could be a signal that the search committee has confidence in the progress of the search for the next chairman of the system.
Still, the departure date leaves less than two months between the planned hiring of the next system president and Thompson’s exit. At this point, it has not been publicly announced when the new chairman of the system will take office.
The committee meets behind closed doors Friday at noon to select finalists for the position.
Thompson declined a request for an interview on Friday, as did UW Regent vice president Karen Walsh, who chairs the presidential search committee. Regent President Edmund Manydeeds III issued a statement on behalf of the board, calling the former governor “a longtime friend of the University of Wisconsin”.
“Tommy Thompson was the right person at the right time. His leadership has helped us navigate a pandemic and set the standard for crisis management, ”Manydeeds wrote. “Equally important, President Thompson has been a relentless champion of the University of Wisconsin. It showed in everything he did as chairman of the system. “
A short but loaded mandate
The resignation letter marks the end of a short but remarkable chapter in the career of Wisconsin’s longest-serving governor – and what could be his last when it comes to public office.
Thompson, 80, initially refused the Board of Regents’ request to take on the interim role, which was left open after searching amid the pandemic to find a replacement for outgoing system chairman Ray Cross, s ended in chaotic failure.
Regent’s small committee named a single finalist for the post, Jim Johnsen, then of the University of Alaska system, only to have him withdraw his candidacy after public talks, citing “process issues.”
Thompson took on the role with characteristic enthusiasm and restlessness, not wanting to just serve as a placeholder while the board worked to start another search.
In the fall of 2020, he overcame concerns about the effort to reopen campuses for in-person learning, using his experience as the former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services to weather early spikes in cases on campuses, deploy a testing infrastructure that has also served surrounding communities, and encourage students and staff to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
Notes of gratitude from the chancellors of the UW system arrived on Friday after the release of Thompson’s resignation letter.
“He has been an extraordinary advocate for our students, faculty and staff over the past 18 months, just as he has been for the State of Wisconsin in his many decades of public service.” UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank said in a statement.
It has also focused on solving less burdensome administrative problems, pushing for improvements in human resources and system procurement processes. Early in his tenure, he cut the central office budget by 10% to fund scholarships for under-represented students and college councils for state school districts.
Thompson was a shameless propellant for the university system, touring the state to trumpet the role of public colleges in shaping the state’s future and questioning what some insiders saw as a chapter of shyness after years of political brawls and budget cuts.
He alternately courted and faced the Republicans who control the state legislature – as one of the most prominent Republicans in the state itself. He led the system through the last state budget process, securing a slight increase in the budget and the end of the eight-year freeze on undergraduate tuition fees in the state imposed by legislators. And when members of his party threatened to prevent the system from imposing masking and other pandemic-related mandates, he refused to comply and challenged them to prosecute.
“Come and enjoy your lessons,” he reassured the students. “Forget the bickering.… Your students, your children are going to be safe. We’re going to make sure they are. And we’re going to use science to do it.”
State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos released a statement thanking Thompson for his leadership, saying he was proud to call Thompson a mentor and friend.
“I want to thank Tommy Thompson for his tireless efforts to help shape our workforce and for his decades of public service,” Vos said. “As this chapter concludes, I know this will not be his last contribution to the state of Wisconsin.”
Thompson wrote in his resignation letter that he will spend his remaining time advancing the system’s legislative agenda, making final campus visits and finalizing a priority list to pass on.
His successor will face challenges no less critical than those seen over the past 18 months, as UW campuses continue to navigate the ebb and flow of the COVID-19 pandemic, grappling with the trends declining enrollments and facing strong political headwinds, while trying to figure out how to adapt their business model to changing demographics.
Thompson wrote that he is “confident that our foundations are as strong as ever”.
“My mother was Irish so I take leave with mixed emotions and undying affection for this institution that I have been proud to lead,” he wrote.