Ask Tommy G. Thompson—the next president of the University of Wisconsin System—for a one-word description of his decades of leadership in state and federal governments, and the word he most often uses is “builder.”

As Wisconsin’s governor from 1987 until his 2001 resignation to run the Health and Human Services Department for President George Bush, for example, Thompson:

  • Started and funded the Corridors 2020 program that rebuilt major highways statewide, making them safer for tourists, farmers, school buses and businesses.
  • Approved new state government buildings for the departments of Administration, Agriculture, Revenue and Corrections and a record number of new prisons.
  • Signed off on the deal that built Miller Park for the Brewers, although he still wonders if it should have been built in downtown Milwaukee.
  • “As governor, more than 4,000 building projects at a collective cost of $2 billion were initiated at (UW System) campuses,” according to Thompson’s biography, Tommy: My Journey of a Lifetime, written with Doug Moe.

In a prescient statement, Thompson then added, “I can’t understand why any public official wouldn’t see the UW System as an ally, especially in a world that is changing faster than ever.”

Wednesday, Thompson becomes president of the 26-campus UW System that spends $6.3 billion a year, has 36,200 full-time employees and anchors regional economies.

It’s an amazing opportunity for the 78-year-old Thompson, who ran for the U.S. Senate in 2012 but lost to Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin.

This spring, blocked from worldwide travels by the Covid-19 pandemic, Thompson had been presiding over his sprawling network of businesses and investments from his western Wisconsin farm before he was asked to consider running the UW System for at least a year.

Thompson grew up in Elroy, came to UW-Madison, bartended on State Street and part-timed in the Capitol before his senior year, when he learned he didn’t have enough credits to graduate. A professor agreed to an extra-credit assignment that let him earn a Bachelor’s degree.

Thompson graduated from UW-Madison’s Law School and, in 1966, ran as a Republican for the state Assembly, ousting an incumbent who dismissed the challenge from the 24-year-old Elroy upstart. His 20 years in the Assembly ended with his 1986 election as governor.

The troubled UW System will test Thompson’s reputation as a builder.

In May, retiring President Ray Cross warned that the System must quickly refocus, consolidate duplicated instructional and administrative programs and cut—not add—costs.

“We don’t know the impact of Covid-19, but there is a growing, clear sense that we must make serious reductions in order to be viable and to offer a quality education,” Cross said. “Layoffs will be inevitable.”

The System’s “survival” is at stake, Cross warned.

Board of Regents members, who make policy decisions for the System, approached Thompson after the only recommended candidate, University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen, withdrew. Johnsen said Wisconsin officials had major issues to resolve before they hire anyone.

Thompson’s first official statement made only a passing reference to the crisis that Cross said looms.

“The UW 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.”

Thompson immediately named two state government veterans—Tom Loftus, the Democratic speaker of the Assembly from 1983-91 and former ambassador to Norway, and Scott Neitzel, Department of Administration secretary under Republican Gov. Scott Walker—as his top transition deputies.

Those appointments sent this message to UW System bureaucrats: “Work through Loftus and Neitzel on transition issues. Don’t try to audition for, or justify, your job by meeting with me. If I need you, I’ll find you.”

Thompson and Loftus disagreed on policies but worked together in the Assembly and respected each other—before and after Loftus lost to Thompson in the 1990 campaign for governor.

Neitzel’s appointment upset senior aides to Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.

Republican legislative leaders, whose relationships with Evers have never been more strained, welcomed Thompson’s appointment.

“As we face unprecedented times, there is nobody better to step in and make sure Wisconsin’s prized universities continue to thrive,” said Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald.

Thompson “has a track record of success,” added Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke.

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at stevenscotwalters@gmail.com