Former Gov. Tommy Thompson’s pending retirement marks a major change for the UW System. The state can only hope his successor measures up.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos isn’t known for understatement. But when he said Thompson “faced challenges no president had experienced before,” he wasn’t exaggerating in the least.
Thompson became the system’s interim president July 1, 2020. Think for a moment about what lay in front of him when that happened. The COVID pandemic had slammed into the U.S. just a few months earlier. The economy was on shaky ground, surely a concern for any organization that relied on tax revenues for any significant portion of their budgets. Classes had been cut short and no one knew whether a fall semester would even be possible.
The system itself had been stung by a failed effort to find a successor to former president Ray Cross. Relations with the Legislature were poor at best. There were dozens of reasons to say no.
Thompson probably knew those reasons as well as anyone. He still said yes. And he took on those challenges at an age when many of Thompson’s peers were already well into retirement.
It’s not as if Thompson needed acclaim. He remains well-regarded in the state that elected him as its governor four times. He had served as U.S. Health and Human Services secretary and launched his own (unsuccessful) bid for the White House. Thompson could easily have demurred, knowing he had served Wisconsin long and well, and his decision would not have tarnished his status.
Wisconsin was fortunate he said yes. Thompson’s experience with HHS placed him magnificently to understand what the university system needed to do during a pandemic. He made sure the campuses had access to testing and that the tests were used. Masks became standard apparel. When vaccines became available, Thompson led the effort to promote them for those on campuses.
Thompson used his status as a Republican elder statesman to salve some of the bruised feelings between the universities and the Legislature. Under his watch the Regents regained authority over tuition. Tensions remain, as they probably always will. But the two sides are not at loggerheads in the same manner as they were not so long ago.
That’s not to say Thompson was a pushover for Republicans in Madison. When a committee made a play for control of the university system’s COVID policies, Thompson stood his ground. A threatened lawsuit has yet to materialize, and it seems unlikely to do so.
Those looking for an explanation as to why Thompson would take on challenges like these need look no further than the opening sentence of his letter of resignation, “I love Wisconsin.”
In that letter, Thompson said the challenges were part of why he was honored to be asked to take the position. And he did something that is a hallmark of good leaders: he spread the credit around.
“While I did not seek this responsibility,” he wrote, “it has been extremely rewarding to lead and work alongside truly remarkable people at UW System Administration and our universities. On the front lines of this undertaking, the UW System enjoys the great benefit of outstanding leadership from our chancellors, who are focused on delivering the best outcomes for their students, their communities, and this state. And our universities are taking a central role in helping drive economic development throughout Wisconsin.”
This is what love of service looks like. This is what leadership should be. It is a welcome reminder of what our state and our country can be, if we are willing to put others ahead of ourselves.
In the musical “Hamilton,” there’s a song called “One Last Time.” In it, George Washington announces he won’t seek a third term, preferring instead to “teach them how to say goodbye.” In his resignation, Thompson accomplished that, too.
Thompson’s tenure as the university system’s president was far from the longest he held a position in his extensive career. But the way he handled it, in the midst of pandemic and partisan divide unlike anything in living memory, may well be his finest hour.