Today in collegiate dystopia: ex-governor to take over the University of Wisconsin

by Greg Mayer

The University of Wisconsin has been having a bad time for more than a decade. The latest episode is an utterly incompetent and unsuccessful search for a new President of the UW System. The search for the President, who oversees all 13 campuses (flagship Madison, runner-up Milwaukee, and 11 comprehensives), was shambolic from the start. The Board of Regents, handpicked by former Governor Scott Walker, had changed the rules so that faculty, staff, and students were excluded from having any meaningful input into the search process—the search committee consisted solely of a handful of Regents and administrators. This was billed as a way of overcoming the sloth and inefficiency of committees with a broadly representative membership. Things would get done fast with a committee controlled by prosperous businessmen (i.e., Regents), because prosperous businessmen know how to get things done.

But as Theodore Roosevelt so astutely observed about prosperous businessmen,

It tires me to talk to rich men. You expect a man of millions, the head of a great industry, to be a man worth hearing; but as a rule they don’t know anything outside their own business.

Choosing to forge ahead during the pandemic, and laboring in secret, the committee, with the assistance of a search firm charging $200k plus expenses, brought forth a single candidate for the full Board of Regents, rather than the 3-5 candidates expected from such a search. For anybody else in academia this would be considered a failed search, but the Regents pushed on in the face of widespread criticism. Just hours before the search committee was to finalize the choice of its only candidate, the candidate, James Johnsen, president of the University of Alaska, withdrew from consideration. In a brief statement, even he realized that things were not right:

[I]t’s clear they [the search committee] have important process issues to work out.

In addition to the process issues, there were substantive concerns about Johnsen. He’d been the recipient of no confidence votes by both faculty and students in Alaska, and had no evident experience in the actual work of universities, having apparently been an administrator for his entire career. (I don’t know why regents and trustees seem to think someone with no experience in teaching or research would be good at running a university. The captain of an aircraft carrier is always a naval aviator, not someone who is good at refurbishing the flight deck or organizing meals for 5000. Although an aircraft carrier needs such people, they are not in command.)

Johnsen’s withdrawal was a bright day for the University of Wisconsin, but the question then became: who would be the president now that the search failed? The current president, Ray Cross, who is retiring at the end of the month, had been chosen for his fealty to the leadership of the state Republican party. Over the years he had proven to be powerless—doing whatever he was ordered to do; clueless—unaware of what his masters wanted until they ordered him to do it; but effective— slashing budgets, instituting top down command, merging the two-year campuses into the four-years. (The latter was to insure that campus chancellors, rather than the Regents or the Legislature, would take the blame when the struggling two-years took their hits.) His latest exploit was using the pandemic as motivation for a grandiose plan to change the mission of the university. (It’s not yet clear whether he was strategically using the crisis, Rahm Emmanuel-style, or just panicking. The latter is indicated by his backtracking, and simultaneous advocacy of moving online and maintaining in person classes in the fall of 2020.) Would Cross be asked to stay on?

On Friday, the Regents announced that they had selected former Republican Governor Tommy Thompson as interim President, and, furthermore, that they did not intend to conduct a search for a permanent President anytime soon. This was a surprising choice, and has drawn mixed reactions. My own view is that he might not be a disaster. I’m not optimistic, but it’s not clear the sky is falling. A little explanation is in order.

As governor from 1987-2001, Thompson worked tirelessly for his personal vision for the state: a series of supermax prisons connected by broad, straight, highways. Frank Rich accurately described him “as a Chamber of Commerce glad-hander who doesn’t know his pants are on fire” during his brief tenure as Secretary of Health and Human Services. So why am I not gloomy? In those days, the Wisconsin Republican Party had a pro-business wing and a know-nothing wing, and the pro-business wing, which Thompson led, was ascendant. Thompson’s wing of the party saw the University of Wisconsin as useful—in mostly a neoliberal, transactional, sort of way, but even tinged with a touch of genuine affection, since they had all gone to school there. Because the legislature was controlled, at least in part, by Democrats for most of Thompson’s tenure as governor, the two parties actually worked together to do good things for the University.

This modest bipartisanship ended when Democrat Jim Doyle became governor. The Democrats thought they could rely on the votes of most University supporters, and the know-nothing wing became ascendant in the Republican Party. The latter reached its apotheosis under Governor Scott Walker, and this wing is deeply opposed to the University on ideological grounds—disdaining both the notion of education as a public good, and the leftist ideology they see as infesting colleges. (At a meeting with a few Regents several years ago, I was saddened by one Regent—a successful Republican politician of the old school—relating how current, know-nothing, legislators mocked her for her support of the University.)

Tommy Thompson thus comes on to the scene as, what one online wag called him, the last “normal Republican”. A former supporter of the University, but a dyed in the wool Republican, it is an open question as to what he will do as UW System President. Equally important is the question of whether the legislature (gerrymandered into an almost unbeatable Republican majority) or the Regents will allow him the latitude to do anything other than what they want. (If the Regents want Thompson to do their bidding, they must act quickly, because in less than a year a majority of the Board’s members will have been appointed by Democratic Governor Tony Evers.)

Does Thompson still support the University of Wisconsin? I don’t know. But at least he’s not a known enemy, and he may have sufficient residual heft to oppose those who are its enemies.

JAC: Here’s a picture of Bascom Hall, the flagship building of the flagship campus at Madison:

Bascom Hall, the main administrative building on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. Bill Martens/WPR

30 thoughts on “Today in collegiate dystopia: ex-governor to take over the University of Wisconsin

  1. My UWM friends let out a collective groan when Thompson was appointed. I had to point out that it was an interim appointment and down the road things will likely get even worse.

  2. Carrier captains can come from either the aviation or nuclear communities. This does not change your intended point as all carriers are nuclear powered and have aircraft so promotion to captain of a boat is from within technical fields critical to carrier operations.

    1. Actual, the CO and XO of an aircraft carriers are all airdales. The top surface/nuke guy on a carrier is the Reactor Officer. One of my best friends was the MPA (main propulsion assistant) on the Roosevelt, then CO of a destroyer before becoming the RO on the Truman.

      1. As I recall from my navy time, the navy wants aviators prospectively bound for carriers to have prior larger deep draft vessel command experience, such as an oiler or other auxiliary supply ship.

  3. In Wisconsin I would expect nothing less and even less if it were possible. A republican run state with no future without much change. They have no faith in government so you get what you pay for – nothing. They have no interest in education so the same applies.

    By the way, there have been a few good carrier commanders that were not aviators. One or two at Midway if I recall.

    1. Spruance and Fletcher, neither of them aviators, indeed did well at Midway. But they commanded task forces consisting of a diversity of ship types– they were not the carrier COs. The COs of the carriers were all aviators; and Spruance relied heavily on the work of his chief of staff, Browning, who was an aviator.

      I’m glad (and mildly surprised) to see that so many readers have an interest in and knowledge of naval history/operations! 🙂


      1. I recall reading in a biography of Spruance that, as a young officer, young ladies referred to him as “Prudence Spruance,” so abstemious and circumspect he apparently was in interacting with them. Spruance came close to getting a fifth star, but apparently the powers that were thought Leahy, King, Nimitz and Halsey constituted enough fleet admirals.

        I think it was in that same tome I read of certain other commanders perceiving Fletcher as “always refueling,” as if he were perhaps a little too predisposed toward “cutting bait” instead of “fishing.”

  4. I did my grad work at UW-Madison during Thompson’s governorship. I don’t recall him being particularly supportive of the school, other than not actively harming it as is happening now.

    But he’s certainly not pro-liberal arts education. The difference between the two types of republicans is that his branch wants universities to be trade schools, while the other branch sees no value in education at all.

  5. “Governor Scott Walker, and this wing is deeply opposed to the University on ideological grounds—disdaining both the notion of education as a public good,…”

    Walker left college before graduating. He seems to have been bored with the study of political science and left to take a job with the Red Cross and to develop his political career. Later, when he began a run for the GOP nomination for president, he showed such lack of general knowledge under questioning, that his campaign quickly collapsed. So, yes, the know-nothing wing of the party is unfit for any office.

  6. The trend for a number of years has been away from education and toward trade training. Cut or eliminate programs that do not directly feed pet industries, even when they support themselves. There is little to no value seen in any liberal arts, art, performance, etc. program, especially in public ed., and this trickles down to secondary and primary, as well. It is a big part of the eliminate public support for ed movement, which seems to follow the “I worked for everything I have. Why should I pay for some lazy/poor kid to get a free four year vacation?”, often from people that worked for none of what they have.

    Add to that the long term belief among many that college athletic programs bring in enough money to be worthwhile (a few do, but only a few. Most that look like they do look so only due to creative accounting. Rutgers, for example, STILL couldn’t show in the black for any sport, much less the program as a whole, even after the former- former former? I lost track- AD stopped charging most facilities costs against the programs.) while unsupported academic programs just suck money from the useful ones.

    I don’t know about everyone here, but I’d bet that most that have been out of uni for a decade or more are doing things now that were not part of their uni education, and are using things they got in uni they would have never expected to. The “I never needed that’ attitude, and ‘you only use ten percent of what you learn, so the rest is wasted’ attitude is wrong and detrimental, but is aligns well with the attitude that public ed is a waste of money of people that should just go do something with their lives rather than leach off the taxpayer teat.

    The reagents in Wisconsin are primarily, at best, vanity academics, and at worst beneficiaries of political patronage. This is not unique. It is a growing issue nationally. It will get worse. But have no fear. It may reach the point the graduates have no breadth to their education, have debt they can never clear (oh, wait, we’ve been there for a while) in the interest of lining someones pockets, even those in the ’employable’ fields that graduate ‘ready to work’- a trend I just don’t understand in most tech fields- will be obsolete soon enough that a new crop can be hired cheaply to replace them. The football and basketball programs, on the other hand, will remain fully funded.

    1. I enrolled in a state college just as it was transitioning away form a tradition of liberal arts. And this was in the late 1960s.

    2. The bizarre and heavily bloated sports programs of our colleges should be a huge issue. They demand and get state of the art stadiums and enormous salaries for the coaches. Granted, the local revenues earned by area businesses is significant, but there is the upfront cost to consider in running their programs. Interesting that most don’t tend to run in the black. I am not surprised.

      1. I attended the Univ. of Minnesota 1979-1984. I was outraged by the spending on sports even then. And so many of my classmates loved it!

        1. “I was outraged by the spending on sports even then. And so many of my classmates loved it!”

          Yes, ones choice of a university, and ones likelihood of academic success, should depend on the existence and success of one or more sports teams at a given university.

    3. Exactly. I live in a red state and that’s what’s happening here. The state legislature changed public university funding to be based on how many graduates get jobs in their major.

  7. “Tommy Thompson — not as terrible as those other Republicans”

    Now there’s a slogan TT could campaign on should he ever again seek elective office.

  8. The biological process of human reproduction begins with meiosis and continues with ovulation in females. It should follow then, that the decision of a woman to avoid pregnancy by choosing to be celibate aborts that process after it has already begun, i.e. it is abortion. If we want to ban abortion should we not then ban the choice of celibacy to avoid pregnancy? It is a facetious comment of course because no moralist would want to ban celibacy. The choice of when to begin the protection of the beginning of human life is a choice strongly influenced by religious convictions and should not, therefore be a subject of state control in a secular nation.

  9. Not sure what “flagship” means here, but it seems revealing that what is regarded as perhaps the main university building is where the administrators ‘work’. (The quotes are likely a bit unfair.)

    Not in any sense the main building at my place (if there is one it would be the main library), but something called Needles Hall was built as the main administrators place around 1975 I think, named after one of the founders from around 1957, Ira NEEDLES.

    As an administrator’s building, it was soon rechristened by much of the faculty and students as NEEDLESS HALL.

  10. Wow. I went to school there in the mid 80s and eventually came back to work in IT at the School of Medicine and Public Health. I am amazed at how much Jerry knows about the UW’s history! I have NEVER been a fan of Tommy Thompson, but after nearly a decade of Walker, Voss, Fitzgerald, et. al., I find Tommy to be a breath of putridly fresh(ish) air. At least I don’t think he is going to work to destroy the place.

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