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: