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wisconsin primary 2016-03-27 23-23-39 (copy)

Former Gov. Tommy Thompson lauded UW-Madison faculty in a March 2016 speech.

Former Gov. Tommy Thompson showered UW-Madison professors with praise at a graduation ceremony last week, striking a different tone from the sharp criticism of faculty members fellow Republican Gov. Scott Walker has leveled in recent days.

In a passionate speech as he accepted an honorary degree from the university Friday, Thompson — who earned his bachelor’s and law degrees from UW-Madison in the 1960s — thanked faculty, calling them “some of the greatest professors in the United States of America.”

After polite applause, Thompson told the audience of graduates and their families, “You can be a little bit more enthusiastic than that — these are great professors!” A larger ovation followed.

Thompson also lauded the university as an “engine of economic development” and research during his address at the commencement ceremony for doctoral and professional degree candidates Friday in the Kohl Center.

Thompson spoke about investments his administration made in UW’s buildings, and — after a week in which some professors announced plans to leave UW-Madison — recounted state efforts to make sure top faculty members stayed at the campus.

“We raised the money and we kept those professors here — and you benefited from it,” he told the graduates.

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Some UW supporters and professors have expressed nostalgia for Thompson and his approach to higher education, comparing it to a Walker administration they say is hostile to the university and its faculty in the wake of budget cuts and new tenure policies that weakened job protections.

Speaking Saturday at Wisconsin Republicans’ state convention in Green Bay, Walker continued criticism of professors that he has intensified since campuses across the University of Wisconsin System have begun passing votes of no confidence in top UW officials.

Walker derided one such vote at UW-Milwaukee last week as a “fuss” by faculty there. He has accused professors of being well-paid employees who want a “job for life” but have been indifferent to the concerns of students as college costs have risen.

On Monday, Walker told conservative talk radio host Charlie Sykes, “We had the audacity to just put a slight restraint on this job-for-life tenure program that they had at the University of Wisconsin System and that’s really what got (faculty) upset.”

State Journal reporter Matt Defour contributed to this report.

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