Thompson's call for cooperation and collaboration should be heeded.

As Wisconsin’s longest-serving governor, from 1987 to 2001, Tommy Thompson was a strong advocate for the University of Wisconsin System and believed in its ability to serve not only as a world-class education institution but also as an engine for economic growth.

After all, Thompson has a deep connection to the system, earning his bachelor (1963) and law (1966) degrees at the Madison campus. He even got his political start there, serving as chairman of the Madison Young Republicans.

So there was a serendipity in events when an opening for president of the UW System coincided with Thompson’s availability for the job. He was appointed in an interim capacity in mid-2020 and figures he has about another six months to helm the system.

But Thompson, who will turn 80 later this year, remains vigorous and has a long history suggesting he’s uninterested in being a mere caretaker. In fact, he is challenging Democrat Gov. Tony Evers and the Republican-controlled Legislature to come together in a joint effort with the UW to reimagine the role and structure of public higher education.

“We just keep doing the same things and we’re going to end up with the same result,” Thompson said in an interview with WisPolitics. “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?”

And, for that matter, what's in the best interest of the state and its place in an economy that is increasingly tied to technology and innovation.

Thompson says the UW System is falling behind other states and needs to catch up to compete. He’s not claiming to have all the answers. Instead, he calls on the governor and legislators to stop fighting long enough to create a task force with the mission of charting the UW’s future, with an eye toward harnessing the system’s intellectual muscle to drive Wisconsin forward.

In a sense, Thompson’s challenge underscores the differences between the Republican Party of his era and today’s harder right-leaning leadership. Higher education is often viewed through a suspicious lens by the modern right, accused of indoctrinating students with left-wing ideology. Among the results of that conflict have been tightening budget restrictions for the UW System and frequent spats between legislators and university officials.

In our view there’s more than little truth in the charge that higher education has become too comfortably leftist, and often too hostile toward conservatism.

Yet the goal should not be a battle of ideologies, but rather a system guided by academic research and inquiry where politics -- left or right -- is an insignificant factor.

Knowledge is power and prosperity. Education is the road to get there.

Tommy Thompson, like an old warhorse not yet ready for the pasture, is challenging political adversaries to put down their knives and set the venerable UW System on a mission worthy of Wisconsin in this fast-changing century. He’s pointing out that the old way of doing things at the UW, coupled with unproductive political feuding, can only result in further erosion of Wisconsin’s place in the competitive fields of the economy and higher education.

He’s right. The UW System -- and the people who pay the taxes to support it -- needs a better plan.

Evers and the Legislature should get on board.

Recommended for you