Former Gov. Tommy Thompson will serve as interim president of the University of Wisconsin System starting July 1, the UW System Board of Regents announced Friday. Thompson will hold the position until a second presidential search can be completed — likely at least a year from now.
Thompson will take the reins after University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen, the UW System’s lone candidate to replace retiring President Ray Cross, withdrew from consideration for the role. Johnsen and the search process itself faced widespread criticism from UW faculty, staff and students.
Cross, who has held the position since 2014, will leave office June 30 and remain as a consultant for 90 days to assist with the transition.
While Regent President Andrew Petersen can name an interim president on his own, Thompson’s appointment has “uniform support,” according to the announcement.
“Governor Thompson is a statesman who offers the kind of leadership the UW System needs right now,” Petersen said. “I have witnessed his collaborative yet direct leadership style. He is perfectly suited to serve as Interim President.”
Thompson will take control of the system in a tumultuous time. Not only will he be tasked with guiding the 26 campuses through the COVID-19 crisis, but he will also be picking up the pieces after the back-to-back controversies of the failed presidential search and Cross’ “Blueprint” for the future of the system — which calls for cuts to programs duplicated across the state.
Thompson was elected in 1986 and won four terms as governor before leaving to become the Secretary of Health and Human Services under President George W. Bush.
“The University of Wisconsin System is the state’s most valuable asset, and I will be its biggest advocate and its toughest evaluator,” Thompson said. “No other institution in the state can do more to improve lives, communities, and Wisconsin’s economy.”
State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) applauded the appointment in a statement.
“I could not be happier with the Board of Regents’ pick,” Fitzgerald said. “Governor Thompson has always been one of the University of Wisconsin System’s strongest advocates. As we face unprecedented times, there is nobody better to step in and make sure Wisconsin’s prized universities continue to thrive.”
But Nick Fleisher, president of the American Association of University Professors-Wisconsin, blamed Fitzgerald for many of the system’s current problems and criticized the Board of Regents for being in this position in the first place.
“Can Thompson get additional funding out of Vos and Fitzgerald, during a pandemic-induced state fiscal meltdown? Can he at least stave off additional cuts?” Fleisher said in a tweet. “If nothing else, Thompson has the clout to drop-kick Ray Cross’s post-COVID blueprint into Lake Mendota.”
“Did the Regents do any consultation with shared governance on this appointment?” he added. “Did they learn a single thing from the failed Johnsen search? More than anything this feels like a way for the Board’s Walker majority to run out the clock and move the spotlight away from them.”
Thompson,78, was born in Elroy, Wis. and received his bachelor’s and law degrees from UW-Madison. He is currently a senior fellow with the Bipartisan Policy Center and chairman and chief executive officer of Thompson Holdings. He serves on the board of directors of Centene Corporation; United Therapeutics Corporation; Physicians Realty Trust; and TherapeuticsMD, Inc.
He will be paid $489,334 annually, the minimum salary allowed under board policy.