'Safe pair of hands': UW appoints former Gov. Tommy Thompson interim president

By Yvonne Kim,  Jun 19, 2020

Former Gov. Tommy Thompson will serve as the University of Wisconsin’s interim president for at least one year, the System announced Friday, after a highly criticized president search left it empty-handed.

The Board of Regents offered uniform support to Regent President Andrew Petersen, who possesses the authority to name an interim president without a vote, according to a news release. System President Ray Cross will stay in his role through the month, with Thompson’s appointment effective July 1.

“Governor Thompson is a statesman who offers the kind of leadership the UW System needs right now,” Petersen said in the release. “I have witnessed his collaborative yet direct leadership style. He is perfectly suited to serve as Interim President.”

Thompson, Wisconsin’s longest serving governor, held office from 1987 to 2001. He then served as Health and Human Services Secretary under President George W. Bush.

The announcement comes one week after Jim Johnsen withdrew from consideration after harsh feedback from System faculty, staff and students about his qualifications and the search committee’s makeup. Johnsen, who was the sole finalist in the search, will continue serving as the University of Alaska System president.

Joel Berkowitz, president of the UW-Milwaukee chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said he saw “widespread joy” after Johnsen’s withdrawal.

“It’s unfortunate that all of that time and those resources were spent on a search that was quite honestly bungled so badly. It shouldn’t have come to that.” Berkowitz said.  Still, he added, “the process was better than it would have been if they installed him … The fact that they paused the process is sensible.”

Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, echoed this response in a news release Friday, lamenting over $200,000 in consultant fees and expenses during the search process.

Now, campus representatives and legislators hope Thompson, Wisconsin’s longest-serving governor, will begin rebuilding lost trust in the System. Berkowitz said Thompson may be able to bring “an appreciation of the value of the UW System that we haven’t had in a while.”

Nick Fleisher, president of the American Association of University Professors Wisconsin, called Thompson — oft-cited symbol of bipartisanship — a “safe choice.”

“(Thompson) is someone who is obviously extremely well-known in the state, someone who has a lot of credibility with people in the capitol,” Fleisher said. “Someone who takes the spotlight off of the Board and onto himself.”

The Board will not search for a permanent president for at least one year, which Fleisher said offers some confidence that it will return to a process with more shared governance input. Shankland echoed this response, urging Thompson to meet with shared governance stakeholders and legislators as the System prepares to find a permanent leader.

“I encourage Tommy Thompson to take a close look at the failed search and learn from the unforced errors that led us here,” Shankland said in the release.

Thompson enters the role as the System faces potential further budget cuts and financial losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic, inheriting from Cross a blueprint outlining broad restructuring and cost-saving strategies.

Instead of big dreams or sweeping reforms, an interim president should “keep things afloat” and oversee a smooth transition, Berkowitz said. Beyond the president search, he hopes Thompson will be more willing to hear faculty and staff voices as the System navigates fiscal challenges and seeks a new president.

“I hope that he will take the time to really get a sense of where we are now,” Berkowitz said. “We’re a different state in a lot of ways than we were when he was governor.”

Thompson will be paid a $489,334 salary annually, which is the minimum under Board policy, according to the release.