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Editorial: Tommy Thompson can renew and improve a struggling UW System

Editorial: Tommy Thompson can renew and improve a struggling UW System

2019-01-07-Inauguration 18-01072019154405 (copy)

Former Gov. Tommy Thompson is introduced to the crowd before the ceremony. Tony Evers became Wisconsin’s 46th governor state Capitol Monday, Jan. 7, 2019 with outgoing Republican Gov. Scott Walker and four other former governors looking on. Jan. 7, 2019. STEVE APPS, STATE JOURNAL

The Capital Times opposed Tommy Thompson’s four bids for the governorship of Wisconsin, and we led the criticism of his tenure as the state’s longest serving chief executive.

We have never been accused of being cheerleaders for Thompson.

So trust us when we say, however grudgingly, that he is the right pick to serve as the interim president of the University of Wisconsin System. Thompson has the experience, the maturity and the stature to renew the system’s historic commitment to the Wisconsin Idea and to the communities from Superior to Kenosha that will only flourish if Wisconsin expands its commitment to higher education.

In this mission, Thompson has his work cut out for him, and he should not let the “interim” title slow him down. The system is in desperate need of leadership.

It is no secret that the state Board of Regents turned to Thompson after completely botching the job of selecting a replacement for retiring system president Ray Cross.

Cross was an uninspired and frequently misguided president, and the decay of the system on his watch has been heartbreaking.

If Thompson was only being asked to articulate a vision for the system after too many years of listless administration, we’re confident that the ebullient former governor could meet the job requirements with enthusiasm alone. But the system’s circumstance is especially tenuous in this moment of COVID-19 uncertainty, mass unemployment and declining state revenues. Just getting the campuses up and running will be a challenge for Thompson when he starts work July 1.

Beyond that, he must take on a state Legislature that has systematically underfunded the university system for years — and that now fights with Gov. Tony Evers simply for the sake of fighting. As a Republican who actually made a lot of things work when he led the state, Thompson must convince GOP legislators to share his understanding that “the University of Wisconsin System is the state’s most valuable asset.”

Thompson says, “No other institution in the state can do more to improve lives, communities, and Wisconsin’s economy.” He’s right. And he must hold firm to this view as UW campuses across the state wrestle in coming months with the question of how to address structural racism at a time when so much can and must change. In this particular struggle, Thompson faces perhaps his biggest challenge, but also his biggest opportunity.

Yes, of course, UW campuses can be engines of economic growth. But they must also be engines of societal growth. If Tommy Thompson makes the campuses centers of debate, research and action on behalf of racial justice, he will not just renew the UW System. He will make it more, and better, than it has ever been.

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