Following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, then-Secretary Tommy Thompson and his staff at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services established an operations center near his office to better coordinate responses to emergency crises.
They connected the “war room” to international agencies and every HHS division, implemented videoconferencing and paid for a command center at the World Health Organization, Thompson wrote in his 2018 memoir, “Tommy: My Journey of a Lifetime.” The center was named for him: “I don’t know if my name survived the Obama administration, but I am sure his team was grateful to have it,” Thompson wrote.
Over the summer, shortly after taking over as interim president of the University of Wisconsin System, Thompson brought that idea to the 19th floor of UW-Madison’s Van Hise Hall. Every morning at 9:30 a.m., he holds an operations meeting with officials across the state to discuss COVID-19 testing, reopening plans and vaccine distribution at the System’s 13 universities and 26 campuses.
“It’s one of the reasons we’ve been so successful,” Thompson said. “Every day we meet and go over the data.”
At the operations meeting on Jan. 12, six members of his team sat socially distanced in a room with a sprawling view of Madison’s isthmus, sharing updates with 10 others via videoconference. Though straightforward and routine, the briefing was an example of Thompson’s hands-on management style and vast connections in the public health world.
Jo Carter, the System’s project portfolio manager, began the briefing with daily test numbers. On other days, the team has invited guests ranging from chancellors to national representatives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Thompson, 79, started in his role July 1. After former President Ray Cross announced his retirement in October, a failed search for his replacement left the System without a top executive and bred distrust of System leadership. Critics said the search committee’s size and makeup eschewed shared governance input, and the lone finalist withdrew following widespread opposition to his background and qualifications.
Board of Regents President Andrew Petersen called Thompson the “right guy for the job at the right time,” when the System can benefit from his political prowess, booming charisma and, above all, his love for and unwavering belief in the people of Wisconsin. After an expansive 50-year career in politics and public service, shepherding the state’s public universities through the COVID-19 pandemic is a critical campaign for Thompson, to not only maintain the System’s standing, but help it thrive.
“I deal with this question in my own mind on a daily basis,” Thompson said in a January interview. “I gotta show value to the Legislature, to the governor, to the students, to the faculty and to the people of the state of Wisconsin ... I’m pretty gung ho and pretty optimistic that we can keep it going and actually grow the System for the good of the state. That’s my goal.”
To some, Thompson embodies a political unity of times past; to the less starry-eyed, he’s a safe and reasonable steward. During the first half of his term as interim president, he has been both. While leveraging his relationships in state and national government to test nearly 400,000 people on and off UW campuses, he submitted an ambitious, seven-pronged proposal for a 3.5% budget increase for the 2021-23 biennium.
System and campus leaders, combatting the effects of enrollment challenges and a tuition freeze during the pandemic, face Gov. Tony Evers’ budget announcement next month and a new presidential search in the fall. With so much change on the horizon, higher education leaders have difficult decisions ahead, not least of which is rebuilding shared governance trust in the System, said Timothy Yu, president of UW-Madison’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors.
“It’s a difficult situation for anyone to be in, even someone with his political experience and his credentials,” Yu said. “It’s a bit early to say what the impact of that is going to be. … The bigger questions are still looming.”
In office from 1987 to 2001, Thompson holds the distinction of being Wisconsin’s longest-serving governor. He moved on to President George W. Bush’s Cabinet for four years, after which he served in a range of policy and health care roles, including at consulting firm Deloitte and law firm Akin Gump. He launched a brief presidential campaign in 2008 and lost a 2012 bid for the U.S. Senate to Tammy Baldwin.
It took the System more than one try to get Thompson on board. At first, he declined to take on a role that was never a part of his career plans, let alone in a caretaker capacity.
“I never take a job to be a placeholder,” Thompson said. “If you want me, I’m going to make changes. … I’m going to come in to run the university and run it not in a dictatorial way, but in a way that I showed as governor, in a very collaborative way.”
But after a second ask, he agreed to take the job, as long as he received unanimous consent from the 18-member Board of Regents. He also wanted all UW System schools to reopen for the fall. Not every chancellor was on board, he said, but he quickly procured the tests and resources necessary to persuade them: “If I come in, we’re going to start school.”
At the operations meeting, Carter presented the daily totals of new testing results by campus, color-coded in shades of green, yellow and red based on positivity levels. As of that morning, Jan. 12, she said, the System had conducted nearly 193,000 antigen and PCR tests with a 3.9% positivity rate — including UW-Madison, 354,000 tests with a 3.4% positivity rate.
Outside of UW-Madison, which has its own testing plan, UW students’ initial point of contact is an antigen test, which provides much quicker, albeit less accurate results than the molecular PCR test, the gold standard for testing that traditionally involves a nasal or saliva sample. If an asymptomatic person tests positive or a symptomatic person tests negative, they receive a confirmatory PCR test to obtain a more accurate result.
“I wouldn’t be so adamant about opening up if I didn’t know we could protect all these people,” Thompson said. “One of the safest places in the state of Wisconsin is on a University of Wisconsin campus. And if we’re one of the safest places, why shouldn’t we be open? Why shouldn’t we be conducting classes?”
UW schools indeed report lower positivity rates than the state overall, but the bar for comparison is low. The day of the meeting, Wisconsin’s seven-day positivity rate was 28.4%. As of December, UW campuses had the third-highest number of positive cases per school compared to colleges in other states — even when excluding UW-Madison, which saw a dramatic spike in cases early in the fall semester.
UW-Oshkosh chancellor Andrew Leavitt was committed to reopening in the fall, but the daunting question was how. While a research powerhouse like UW-Madison could establish its own testing regime over the span of a summer, Leavitt said campuses like his needed more help.
“It was always our intention to open face-to-face, and what President Thompson did for us was make it possible,” Leavitt said. “The Regents went out and got the most uniquely qualified person on the planet to come into the situation and immediately take charge. There was an instantaneous lift in confidence … He gave all of us the confidence that we could do this.”
Cross, who remains active as a consultant, followed Carter’s report with an update on the spring semester’s expanded testing strategy. The goal, he said, is to more than double testing capacity to over 676,000 tests. To do so, campuses will test all students in residence halls weekly, test more faculty and staff and expand services to branch campuses.
One of Cross’ slides is in such fine print the numbers only look like colored dots. The chart shows a horizontal list of System campuses against a vertical timeline of every school day from January through May, with a daily estimate of tests needed per campus and, in red, dates at which they will run out.
When federal officials saw the System’s on-campus testing program last fall, they wanted to help replicate it for the wider community. Thompson announced in November that the System would be the only university system to participate in a federally funded surge testing campaign, which has administered over 220,000 tests and that UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank attributed to Thompson’s robust connections and political experience.
“When you say Tommy Thompson’s going to say something, the press shows up. They listen to it and they cover it,” Blank said. “The reputation and the experience that he brings has been really helpful.”
The System announced Monday that the community testing, initially set to expire in January, will extend through spring, with a shipment of 140,000 more tests from HHS.
UW-Madison has administered nearly 3,000 vaccines out of 4,001 people in eligible populations, and the System is gearing up to join the state’s vaccination efforts. Last Monday, Thompson and Evers attended the launch of a UW-Green Bay vaccine clinic, and UW students will collaborate with the Department of Health Services and National Guard to administer vaccines at mobile units statewide.
“We’ve shown with the testing adjustments that we’ve made and the programs that we rolled out we’re in a great position to help the state get through this,” said Regent Karen Walsh, appointed by Evers in 2019. “That’s job #1, to make sure we can all conduct business and education and do it safely.”
The new Wisconsin idea
The pandemic has cost the System $258 million and UW-Madison $65 million, as of January. For years, System and campus leaders have called for a lift on the state tuition freeze, first implemented in 2013 under former Gov. Scott Walker, that has kept UW tuitions far below those of peer institutions.
The System, however, chose to shelve the issue. Thompson and the Regents wanted to make it clear in this budget proposal that now is not the time to increase the burden on college students, said Petersen, appointed by Walker in 2015.
“Families are struggling and we recognize that,” Petersen said. “One of the benefits of the tuition freeze, quite frankly, right now is that for the dollar, there is no better place to get a four-year education — I would argue — in this country than the UW System.”
Instead, he said, “if we’re going to hold the line on tuition, then we have to have appropriate and significant reinvestment back in the UW System.” Higher education may be one of few areas that remains “relatively bipartisan,” and Petersen said he sees no one better than Thompson to bring its case before Evers, a Democrat, and the Republican-controlled Legislature.
The System’s budget proposal is a list of seven initiatives, including expanded mental and behavioral health services, funding for agricultural research and a partnership with the Department of Corrections to expand education and reduce recidivism in prisons. In August, Thompson requested a 3.5% budget increase for the 2021-2023 biennium that, if approved, would equal a $95.7 million increase in System spending.
The System bore the majority of a 5% state budget cut last biennium, and Evers’ next budget is no more auspicious, with an anticipated $373.1 million revenue shortfall based on state agency requests. Evers, who requested in June that agencies not request additional expenditures this biennium, plans to deliver his budget address virtually Feb. 16.
“(The budget) really is focused on being a true solutions partner in the state,” Petersen said. “What I like about this budget is it’s quintessential Tommy Thompson. We’re not gonna spend a dollar unless it’s going toward something that’s going to improve the state of Wisconsin.”
This is what Thompson calls “the new Wisconsin idea,” alluding to the original concept that a UW education should improve lives beyond classroom walls to the boundaries of the state. Every chance he gets, he reminds people that the System is not only a worthy investment — one that returns $23 for every $1 the state invests — but that he wants it to be a problem solver for the state.
Though asking for a budget increase during the pandemic is a tall order, Thompson is “cautiously optimistic.” His goals are twofold: more money to fund the seven proposals and short-term capacity for the System to borrow money between $500 million and $1 billion this academic year, “only be deployed as a last resort to help bridge campuses to a more stable operational environment post-COVID-19.”
Blank has consistently denounced outdated state restrictions on borrowing power. The tuition freeze and years of declining state funding have brought tuition reserve funds to record lows since 2008. To make matters worse, she said UW-Madison is sitting on large cash balances saved for future buildings or projects without being able to borrow in the meantime, a problem most peer institutions don’t have.
“I will bet on President Thompson’s ability to get more of that through the governor and Legislature than almost anyone else that I can imagine,” Blank said. “We really want to modernize the way we deal with working capital. Nothing has indicated that more than this year.”
Within the last six months, Thompson began weeding out obsolete technologies that prevented administration from working with or accessing information effectively. The System is currently consolidating three separate, monthly payroll systems into one biweekly system and implementing a cloud-based platform to streamline procurements and payment.
He also launched a five-year plan to phase in new software for business operations, which had been “taking longer than it should,” Blank said. UW-Madison started the $212 million project in January.
“We have a very poor communication system as it relates to computers and archaic and boarded up payroll systems,” Thompson said. “They needed a strong leader to come in and make decisions. … People before me have built a great university. I just wanted to make it more operational and more successful.”
A long to-do list
Just as Thompson is only a temporary president, the pandemic is merely an immediate problem atop a long to-do list, a blow to a System that was already faltering. In 2017, Cross announced a restructuring plan that merged 13 two-year colleges with nearby four-year institutions, hoping to keep schools and local communities alive without eliminating any campuses.
It was his response to consistently declining enrollment that continues today. Enrollment dropped at almost every campus from 2010 to 2019, with nearly 10% fewer full-time enrolled undergraduates across the System at the end of the decade.
“We must plan for the future now and be increasingly bold in our efforts to get more students through the educational pipeline to help meet Wisconsin’s needs,” Cross said in a news release in 2017. “We must do this by improving access to higher education and keeping it affordable for students and families.”
Shifting demographics and an aging population with fewer high school graduates have made it more difficult for schools to recruit students. Plus, a strong economy before the pandemic further disincentivized young people from continuing their educations, as they opted to directly join the workforce out of high school.
UW-Parkside was one of the universities unaffected by Cross’ announcement. It was founded in 1965 through the merging of UW-Kenosha and UW-Racine, which Parkside Chancellor Deborah Ford proudly called “the original restructuring,” but the challenges in creating institutions that serve their communities remain increasingly pertinent today.
“President Thompson is working with campuses and leveraging resources to make sure that we are focused on those that are in high school today and that, when they graduate, that UW is their first choice, because it’s their best choice,” Ford said. “It is the Wisconsin idea of the 21st century, to reach every family across our state.”
Beyond high school graduates, reducing barriers for adult learners is top-of-mind across System and campus leadership, especially as the pandemic has demanded greater attention to learning access. Three of the seven initiatives in the System’s budget request support these goals: more scholarships, advancing opportunities for Wisconsin teachers and school leaders and enhancing online education opportunities.
If approved, the initiatives would increase funding for student loan forgiveness and target high-need fields and districts, especially special and bilingual education and rural districts. It would also expand System capacity to deliver online education to the 815,000 Wisconsin adults and professionals with some college but no degree.
“If we show the Legislature that the new university is much more cost-conscious, more efficient, more dedicated to solving problems, they will give us the necessary dollars to sustain this operation,” Thompson said.
To measure performance, the proposal includes goals to meet or exceed second-year retention rates and graduation rates. The System also aims to enroll at least 32% of Wisconsin high school graduates immediately after graduation, a rate that hasn’t been achieved since 2013.
Under Cross' plan, UW-Oshkosh merged with the Fox Valley and Fond du Lac campuses and was just beginning to forge new relationships when the pandemic hit: “We were knocked off our feet,” Leavitt said. But Leavitt remains bullish about the future of schools like his, which he said are essential in an ever-evolving higher education landscape where people learn at or close to home.
“These institutions endure, and they endure because people need us,” Leavitt said. “Coming out of this pandemic, you’re going to start to see these schools do well.”
Some of Thompson’s budget proposals, such as simplifying operations or improving online education, reflect Cross’ COVID-19 blueprint, a document of recommendations he announced after his retirement to “ensure the survival” of System campuses. However, the blueprint also included plans to reassess academic offerings and cut costs that shared governance leaders said would harm smaller programs.
“The blueprint was one of many examples where it really seemed like the System, the campuses and shared governance were at loggerheads and not talking to each other,” Yu said.
For many faculty and staff, the search for Cross’ replacement felt like the latest in a series of incidents that led to declining trust in System leadership. Despite repeated criticism, the System broke from tradition with a nine-member search committee, half the size of past committees, which included one student and no faculty or staff.
Thompson’s arrival was a relief for even the System’s harshest critics. German associate professor Hannah Eldridge, who said she was “distressed” and “aghast” by the search process, first moved to Wisconsin in 2012, long after Thompson left office. But she said colleagues assured her Thompson represented a “consensus that the UW System was good and important for Wisconsin.”
Thompson reached out to shared governance groups soon after assuming his role and demonstrated a desire to work on rebuilding relationships, Yu said. But, in the long term, he said the System needs to develop a concrete, meaningful shared governance structure beyond the campus level, where frustrations often go unheard. He feels hopeful that the Regents, who are appointed on a staggered appointment basis, seem increasingly interested in “changing that conversation.”
“(The next president) needs to make very clear that they listen to workers, and I would want evidence of that: What have you changed in your decision-making as a result of your conversations with someone who works on campus, and not in a dean’s office?” said Eldridge, a member of the UW-Madison’s United Faculty and Academic Staff union. “I would want not just lip service to commitments to diversity, but again, clear evidence.”
Walsh said it’s safe to say that the search process will look different this year. She wants the Board to remember that “the next president of the UW System is watching us,” she said, and prove that it is moving forward after the search’s hit to its reputation.
Petersen will not participate in the next search, but he has said repeatedly that the System has absorbed feedback and learned its lessons. Thompson will remain in his role until a successor is named, and a search will likely begin in late summer.
Until then, Thompson looks each day at a giant whiteboard with a list of no fewer than 50 items. Many of them — reporting requirements, biweekly payroll, spring testing — are well underway, while others — vaccinations, minority recruitment — will last long past his term.
It hangs outside of his office, right by a wide window. When he shifts his attention from the board to the Madison scenery, everything he sees is a potential investment, from aging architecture to an empty building that can serve as extra storage.
“I look out the window and I can see opportunities for expanding, for making money,” Thompson said. “We’re a diamond. We gotta polish that diamond and make it shine.”
But beyond the to-do lists, regents and chancellors across the System say Thompson’s greatest value to the System has not been as a president, but as a storyteller for the state of Wisconsin.
“He’s going to be hard to replace,” Leavitt said. “We need somebody who knows and understands the strength of the System as a whole but also understands the great value that individual institutions bring their regions. We need someone who knows and understands how to capitalize. It’s about the storytelling.”
While there are no tangible announcements about the next search committee yet, Petersen will say one thing: “I’m not hearing from Regents that we should accelerate that search.”
“What I’m hearing from Regents is that we’ve never had a better leader who’s had more impact in a shorter period of time than President Tommy Thompson,” Petersen said. “We’re fortunate that we’ve got that.”