16 projects to finish, retirement ‘not in the cards’ as Tommy Thompson finishes UW tenure

MADISON, Wis. — As the University of Wisconsin System’s interim president Tommy Thompson prepares to step down, Thompson tells News 3 Now that his plans for the future include anything but retirement.

With a storied political career spanning four terms as Wisconsin’s governor ending in 2001, followed by a stint under George W. Bush as Secretary of the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, his brief but impactful tenure since July 2020 leading the UW System included high-profile clashes with the legislature and a sweeping mass testing plan and vaccine pushes that kept the campuses open during a deadly pandemic.

“I think all the jobs I’ve ever held, that’s one of the things people can say: ‘He improved it, it was better when he left than when he started.’ That’s all I can ask for, and I think that’s what I’ve been able to accomplish.”

He announced his resignation after nearly two years as interim president January 7, as the UW System has indicated they are closing in on announcing his successor. There isn’t much he’s ruling out once he begins planning his next step in April, he said.

“I’m not going to go off in the sunset and do nothing, I will be looking at my opportunities in the month of April and make a decision,” Thompson told News 3 Now. “My wife would like me to retire, but that’s not in the cards. I don’t know what I’m going to do, Naomi, but I’m going to do something.”

He’s got a couple months left, and says he’s absolutely confident that the UW board of regents will have selected his successor in time for his departure. In the mean time, he has sixteen projects to finish.

“I’ve completed over fifty, close to one hundred things already. I got sixteen more that I want to get done, and I’m working very hard to complete those sixteen.”

Two projects close to the top, and now before the legislature: securing funding for a new engineering building on the UW-Madison campus, and increased Wisconsin benefits from its reciprocity agreement with Minnesota.

Both of those goals need legislature cooperation to achieve, which he says he’s confident of securing. That’s despite headlines last year, when the legislature–led by his own party–threatened him with lawsuits over COVID precautions on UW campuses, leading to him sending a defiant public message in response.

But legislative leaders still welcome him at the capitol, he said.

“My relationship with the legislature is very good. I go up there, I see them, they’re happy to see me. They don’t throw me out of the office, they ask me to come in and have coffee with them. I’m just delighted to be able to do that and tell them how important the university is,” he explained.

On the divided state of Wisconsin politics, the Republican with a history of bipartisan work said both sides need to come to the table.

“We need better cooperation, better relationships, better understanding on both sides. It’s not only one side, it’s both sides, to make it work.”

And while he weighs next steps, the 80-year-old says you can find him back on his water skis this summer.