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UW System needs Tommy the innovator
UW System needs Tommy the innovator

UW System needs Tommy the innovator


Tommy Thompson’s new job title has the word “interim” in front of it. But we trust he’ll be much more than a stopgap administrator for the University of Wisconsin System.

The former governor and secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services likes to think big and pull people together around creative ideas.

The UW Board of Regents should encourage Thompson to be the kind of UW System president who leaves his mark on Wisconsin’s 13 universities across 26 campuses, even though his tenure is temporary. The System is facing enormous challenges and can’t afford to coast while the lengthy process of picking a permanent replacement for retiring President Ray Cross slowly reboots.

The Regents on Friday wisely tapped Thompson to be interim president for at least the next year. We can’t think of a better choice. Thompson’s selection brings much-needed stability to the job, following the controversial and failed search to replace Cross, who is retiring at the end of the month.

“I will be its biggest advocate and its toughest evaluator,” Thompson said of the UW System. “No other institution in the state can do more to improve lives, communities and Wisconsin’s economy.”

That’s the right attitude.

The coronavirus pandemic has closed campuses, forced classes online and triggered a recession, which is sure to limit state aid in the next state budget, if not sooner.

Thompson, the longest-serving governor in state history who ran the federal government’s enormous health agency under President George W. Bush, has immediate credibility with the GOP-run Legislature, which controls the state’s purse strings. Thompson also harks back to more collegial times at the state Capitol, something the straightforward Democratic Gov. Tony Evers should appreciate.

Most important, Thompson sincerely loves UW-Madison, his alma mater, and the state’s broader education system. His enthusiasm for higher education and scientific research are infectious. And his small-town roots mean he won’t forget the smaller campuses and communities when difficult choices about resources must be made.

The state has frozen in-state tuition since 2013 to hold down the cost of college for Wisconsin families. The freeze has been justified and welcome. But state leaders didn’t invest enough in state dollars during the last decade of economic growth to keep our universities strong.

Now the state may have fewer resources and students, given ongoing health risks from COVID-19, the potentially deadly respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus. That is prompting difficult discussions about how to open campuses, and whether some academic programs should be cut or consolidated.

Thompson, 78, is at higher risk from COVID-19 because of his age. That could limit his gregarious and hands-on leadership style. But we’re confident he will find ways to stay safe while still encouraging innovation and consensus.

Congratulations to the Regents for quickly tapping Thompson. The troubling and secretive search for Cross’ successor had led to a sole finalist who withdrew from consideration earlier this month. That damaged public trust.

Thompson is a reassuring and exciting choice to steer the System forward.

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