Tommy Thompson to lead UW system
The University of Wisconsin System has been struggling to find a new system president to replace the retiring Ray Cross. After an exhaustive and expensive search that yielded a single final candidate, that candidate withdrew his application saying that, “it’s clear they have important process issues to work out.” Indeed, they do.
Last week, the University Of Wisconsin Board Of Regents paused their search for a permanent president and appointed former Gov. Tommy Thompson as an interim president for at least the next year. It is an inspired choice. The UW System is desperately in need of a fundamental transformation and Thompson is one of the few people who might be able to build enough unity to pull it off.
As Wisconsin’s only fourterm governor, Thompson is known as a pragmatic, consensus- building leader. He is also a cheerleader par excellence for everything Wisconsin. Wisconsin’s political landscape, however, is very different than when Thompson held power in Madison. Time will tell if Thompson can still build political bridges in this climate.
The problems facing the UW System are well-known and not easily solved. Enrollment in the UW System has been declining for years with some campuses seeing substantial declines. The schools have attempted to stem the tide by recruiting students from out of state or other countries, but the demographic impact of the declining birth rate is overwhelming education systems across the country. With declining enrollment comes declining revenue and less money to go around.
On top of that, the UW System, like everyone else, is being hit hard by the impact of the coronavirus and the government overreaction to it. At the state level, the decline in sales and income tax revenue for the state means that there will be less state money to spread around and the UW System is likely to see a decrease in overall state taxpayer support.
Coronavirus is also changing how UW System schools will have to deliver education. The changes to how campuses function and the integration of distance learning into every class will be dramatic and, in some cases, permanent. This changes some of the underlying dynamics of university priorities. Do they need so many buildings? Are cafeterias a thing of the past? Will the large lecture hall be replaced by a streaming service? If everyone is distance learning, do we need physical campuses scattered all over the state?
Under Thompson’s contract, the Board of Regents will not commence a new search for a permanent president for at least a year and Thompson will serve until his replacement takes office. This gives Thompson at least a year to lead the UW System through what will be an incredibly challenging time. But it is also an opportunity to reshape the UW System to serve Wisconsin for the next few generations instead of the last few generations.
Thompson’s first priority must be to ensure that all of the UW System campuses will be open this fall to welcome students. While the coronavirus has proven to be less concerning for young people, appropriate precautions will need to be in place to make sure that students, faculty, and staff are comfortable getting back to work on campus.
Thompson will also need to empower and equip faculty with the right technology, teaching methodologies, and motivation to ensure that students can get just as good an education online as in the classroom. This is not possible for every class, but it must be a priority for every class where it is possible. If another pandemic hits, we cannot allow our students to forgo or postpone their education for months or years.
Finally, the overriding concern that Thompson faces and the one that will loom over every decision is the decline in revenue. Instead of trying to prop up old interest groups and outdated educational structures, Thompson must focus on making every dollar count. Instead of trying to make every campus be everything to all people, the UW System must prioritize its resources to be the absolute best at what it does. This might mean that it does not do as much or in as many places, but it will be the best at what it does do. This is how it will continue to be a magnet for students and faculty who want to be, and learn from, the best.
Tommy Thompson has stepped up at a critical time in the history of the University of Wisconsin. One would not expect any less from someone a man who has dedicated so much of his life to moving Wisconsin forward. Let us hope that he can transform the UW System like he did Wisconsin.
(Owen B. Robinson is a conservative Wisconsin political commentator and former West Bend resident. He can be reached at owen@bootsandsabers. com.)