Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, 78, has been hired as the interim president of the University of Wisconsin System. He will begin his term July 1, allowing current UW President Ray Cross to follow through on retirement plans announced last year.
The UW Board of Regents held a special meeting Thursday afternoon and entered a closed session to discuss interim leaders. Thompson’s entrance into UW System administration comes after a failed search for a replacement for Cross, who has served as UW System president since 2014.
In November, Board of Regents President Drew Petersen appointed a nine-member committee to search for Cross' replacement. The committee was heavily criticized by faculty shared governance groups for not including any non-regent students, faculty or staff.
On June 2, the search committee announced a single finalist for the UW System president job. That also drew criticism from shared governance groups and Democratic state lawmakers. The finalist, University of Alaska System President Jim Johnsen, then withdrew from the running June 12, hours before the regents special committee was set to vote on recommending him for the job.
Thompson is the only governor in the state’s history to serve four terms. He also served as U.S. secretary of Health and Human Services under former President George W. Bush.
In a UW System press release, Thompson said no other institution in Wisconsin is a bigger economic driver than the state’s 26 universities and branch campuses.
"The University of Wisconsin System is the state’s most valuable asset, and I will be its biggest advocate and its toughest evaluator," Thompson said.
Petersen said he asked Thompson to serve as the interim head of the UW because of his "legacy of bringing people together and finding common ground."
In a briefing with reporters featuring Petersen and Regent Karen Walsh, Petersen called Thompson a "unifying choice to move this state and the UW System forward" in difficult financial times for campuses. He was asked if he and other board members learned any lessons from the failed six-month search process.
"You know, good leaders learn from mistakes and going forward, I think there will be discussions between members of the Board of Regents on the importance of having a committee that's expansive," Petersen said.
When asked if he would commit to including faculty, staff and students on the next search he said the board is "open to it."
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Walsh, an appointee of Gov. Tony Evers, said hiring Thompson reflects the board's "commitment to move forward in a bipartisan way."
"And I think Gov. Thompson is the quintessential person who has worked across the aisle," Walsh said. "I witnessed this both when I was a reporter and when I worked at UW-Madison. He's a collaborator. He's a convener of people. We need his political skills."
UW-Milwaukee professor and president of the American Association of University Professors Wisconsin Conference, Nicholas Fleisher, said it looks like the Board of Regents picked someone they view as a "safe choice" after a failed search when appointees of former Gov. Scott Walker had the majority.
"And so, I think this is the board kind of stepping back and saying, 'All right, we're not going to go through that again,"' said Fleisher. "We're just going to kind of run out the clock on our own appointments and then we're going to let new leadership take over."
Thompson was born in Elroy and earned his bachelor’s and law degrees from UW-Madison. He was elected to the state Assembly in 1966 and was first elected governor in 1986, serving until February 2001. He is currently a senior fellow with the Bipartisan Policy Center and chairman and CEO of Thompson Holdings.
In a press release, Wisconsin state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, praised regents for choosing Thompson as interim president.
"I could not be happier with the Board of Regents' pick," said Fitzgerald. "Governor Thompson has always been one of the University of Wisconsin System's strongest advocates. As we face unprecedented times, there is nobody better to step in and make sure Wisconsin's prized universities continue to thrive."
State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Burlington, echoed that praise when he tweeted that Thompson "is an innovator, collaborator and one of Wisconsin's finest leaders."
Thompson has requested to be paid the minimum salary for the UW System President job, which is $489,334. He will remain employed until a new president is hired and takes office.
The UW System release said the Board of Regents "will not commence a search for a permanent president for at least a year."
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