Former Republican governor and UW System Interim President Tommy Thompson. (UW System)
Tommy Thompson, former Republican governor and interim president of the University of Wisconsin System, announced in a letter on Friday that he’d be resigning from the role on March 18.
Thompson has held the position for 18 months, taking the job after the UW System’s search for a permanent president after the retirement of Ray Cross failed because of a widely criticized process due to a lack of input from students and faculty members.
The former governor has been in charge of the state’s universities as they navigate through the COVID-19 pandemic and the challenges it has presented to campus life.
Thompson’s announcement came on the same day that the UW System Board of Regents met in a closed session to select finalists in its second search for a president.
“I love Wisconsin. As you have heard me profess on many occasions, I believe the University of Wisconsin System is among our state’s greatest assets, second only to its people,” Thompson wrote in his resignation letter to Board of Regents President Edmund Manydeeds. “I have worked relentlessly over the past 18 months to lead this organization and put the Wisconsin Idea into action to improve the lives of all Wisconsinites.”
Thompson, still popular after serving as Wisconsin’s longest-serving governor, used his time as system president to assert the system’s power against Republicans in the Legislature, staring down Republicans who sought to prevent universities from instituting mask and testing mandates for students. Yet he also upset some faculty members and students with his refusal to institute a vaccine mandate on campuses.
He also brought some levity to the role with a series of absurd social media videos in which he took a sledgehammer to various objects to advertise the system’s efforts to “smash COVID.”
After his resignation, praise for Thompson rolled in from both sides of the political divide.
“Tommy Thompson assumed the role of Interim System President with honor and determination,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) tweeted. “His priorities were to give students a world-class education by upgrading and providing programs to help them succeed now and in the future. During his 18 months leading the organization, he faced challenges no president had experienced before. He tackled them head-on and continued to provide quality education, maximizing in-person learning for the students of the UW System.”
Greta Neubauer (D-Racine) also applauded Thompson for his guidance of the system through the pandemic.
“President Tommy Thompson led the University of Wisconsin System through the last eighteen months of the COVID-19 pandemic, steering the ship with a steady hand through a rapidly changing landscape,” Neubauer, who is soon to become the Assembly minority leader, said in a statement. “The University of Wisconsin System is one of our state’s greatest assets, providing our students with a world-class education and prioritizing innovation for the benefit of Wisconsin as a whole. President Thompson has been a steadfast champion for the Wisconsin Idea, and I am very grateful for his work strengthening the relationship between the Legislature and the UW System.”
With Thompson’s resignation and the imminent announcement of finalists in the presidential search, UW System administration is likely to have a new, permanent president before a potential new governor takes office after the election this fall. That’s significant because a potential Republican governor could rescind Gov. Tony Evers’ not-yet-confirmed appointments to the Board of Regents and insert their own to gain a majority on the board.
Thompson’s departure isn’t the only change in leadership in the UW System, as UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank is set to leave for Northwestern University after this academic year. A search for Blank’s successor is still ongoing.
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