Former WI Governor and current UW System President Tommy Thompson takes a swing at pumpkins for a Smash Covid video. Photo by ken fager CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
UW System Interim President Tommy Thompson warned legislative Republicans against picking a fight with him over COVID-19 mitigation measures as he reiterated his stance against mandating vaccines for students, staff and faculty on UW campuses.
The former Republican governor, who made news earlier this week when he dared legislators to sue him and the UW System over mask mandates on campus, said in a WisPolitics luncheon on Thursday that he’s not trying to fight the Legislature but vowed that if they pick one, he’ll win.
Earlier this month, Republicans in the Joint Committee for the Review of Administrative Rules (JCRAR) passed a measure that attempts to force the UW System and its universities to put COVID-19 policies such as mask and testing requirements through the Republican controlled rulemaking process. It’s not clear if the effort, led by Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater) has any weight, as universities have instituted mask mandates anyway.
“I don’t want to fight with the Legislature,” Thompson said. “My friend Steve Nass can make that decision and the leadership can make their decision. I think they’re making a big mistake. I think they’re going to lose the battle.”
“Why would they want to sue and lose,” he continued. “And why do you want to fight with Tommy Thompson, for god sakes?”
Thompson said his thought process is the same as it was last summer when he made the decision that all 13 UW campuses would hold in person classes. This time, he wanted each university chancellor to work with local health authorities and use CDC infection data to determine rules for their own campuses. For now, each of the campuses is in an area that the CDC considers high risk for spread of the virus so they all have mask mandates for at least the first 30 days of school.
While Thompson stood up for the UW System’s right to institute health measures on campus, the former secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services again said he didn’t want to mandate vaccinations. Professors from across the university system have advocated for a vaccine mandate ahead of returning to classes.
A number of other universities in the region have already mandated vaccines. Private Wisconsin schools such as Marquette University, Lawrence University, Carthage College and Beloit College are requiring vaccines. So are fellow Big Ten schools Indiana University, University of Minnesota and Ohio State University. A federal judge in the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals — which covers Wisconsin — upheld Indiana’s mandate in June.
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“I do not believe at this point in time we need to mandatory vaccinate, and I’ve said that from day one,” Thompson said.
Despite the legal backup, Thompson said he’d rather focus on educating and encouraging students to get vaccinated rather than forcing them to. The UW System is incentivizing vaccinations by holding a scholarship lottery on campuses that reach a 70% vaccination rate. He added that vaccination clinics will be set up on all UW System campuses.
A UW-Madison dashboard shows that the university has vaccinated more than 66,000 students and employees.
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