Thompson wants task force to examine higher education

Tommy Thompson

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — University of Wisconsin System President Tommy Thompson on Thursday urged the Legislature and Gov. Tony Evers to set up a task force to re-examine every aspect of higher education in the state.

Thompson told President Jeff Mayers during a Zoom interview that the UW System is falling behind other states. The system lacks a robust distance learning program, has too many buildings and too many campuses duplicate courses, he said.

“We just keep doing the same things and we’re going to end up with the same result,” he said. “More (student) debt, more buildings, more classrooms. It’s time for us to be controversial and take a look. What’s in the best interest of the student?”

Thompson, a former Wisconsin governor, didn’t lay out any specific goals for the proposed task force but complained that “no one has given me the ability to go out and compete. You know me, I don’t want any state to come into Wisconsin and take anything from us.”

Republican legislators essentially held system funding flat in the 2021-23 state budget. The GOP also gave the system about $629 million for building projects. Evers, the former state superintendent of schools, had asked for $1 billion.

Evers spokeswoman Britt Cudaback didn’t immediately respond to a message seeking comment on whether the governor would consider Thompson’s request. Neither did aides for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu.

Thompson, who was also health secretary under former President George W. Bush, was once a Republican icon in Wisconsin. But his party has grown far more conservative since he left office and he finds himself at odds with Republican leadership after he refused their demands to get approval from the Legislature’s rules committee before implementing any COVID-19 protocols on campuses. The committee’s co-chairman, Sen. Steve Nass, has threatened to sue him.

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Thompson also told Mayers that he won’t seek to become the system’s permanent president. The regents selected him to serve on an interim basis last year after the search for a permanent president stalled. A new search committee started meeting this month.

Thompson, who will turn 80 in November, said he thinks he has about six months left in the president’s office. He wants to use that time to “transform” the system’s outdated computer and financial system, saying nobody understands the technology because it is so old.

He ended the interview by saying: “I guess I did a lot of talking. I’m sure all the people will be writing me letters disagreeing with me. But that’s the way life is. I’m not afraid to make decisions.”