Tommy Thompson 011221 02-01132021203218

Soon after taking office, Thompson compiled a team that briefs him on COVID-19 updates each morning.

After nearly two years serving as the University of Wisconsin System's interim president, Tommy Thompson will leave his role on March 18. 

Thompson, an 80-year-old former Republican governor, has held the position since July 2020, after the UW System failed to hire a permanent successor for Ray Cross. 

In a letter of resignation to Board of Regents president Edmund Manydeeds, Thompson said he was honored to step in as president during what could have been the System's "darkest time." Manydeeds described Thompson in a press release as the "right man at the right time." 

"His leadership has helped carry us through a pandemic and set the standard for managing during a crisis," he said. "He answered the call as one of Wisconsin’s greatest public leaders by accepting this role in spite of the challenges in front of him."

Among Thompson's accomplishments include maintaining the System's financial stability and seeing only a slight decline in enrollment across the institution's 26 campuses, while many other schools in the nation experienced significant falloffs.

Thompson also said he expanded testing capacity to the public at all the System institutions, becoming the first public university system in the country to do so. 

"To this day, we have continued to provide this resource, with our universities having provided over 1 million COVID tests," Thompson said in his letter.

On Jan. 3, however, UW-Madison consolidated its four testing sites to one location at University Club. Ahead of winter break, some students reported they were scrambling to secure a test amid a nationwide shortage, and the university told students they may need to seek testing off campus. 

Thompson also carried out a vaccine incentive campaign, encouraging UW System students to get inoculated for the chance to win one of 70 $7,000 scholarships. 

The scholarship recipients spanned 11 campuses in the UW System where the vaccination rate reached above 70% by the end of October. Only one campus, UW-Platteville, did not meet Thompson’s goal set this summer.  

The campaign was an alternative to vaccine mandates, which Thompson long said he disagrees with. While some criticized his COVID policies, Thompson said the campaign was an achievement. On social media, the System often posted videos of him yelling "smash COVID" while wielding axes and bowling balls then pounding them into objects.

Throughout his tenure, he also inched further in his goal of eventually expanding one of the state's prisons into a college for inmates. In December, Thompson announced UW System’s Prison Education Initiative received $150,000 in funding. 

In his letter, Thompson additionally recognized his work with the Legislature and governor's office, saying "tuition-setting authority has been restored to the Board of Regents after nearly a decade." 

"This same willingness to faithfully engage with policy makers from both political parties has brought the UW System closer to a return to confidence with these elected officials," he said. 

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, in a statement, said Thompson fulfilled his duties with honor and determination.  

“During his 18 months leading the organization, he faced challenges no president had experienced before,” Vos said. “He tackled them head-on and continued to provide quality education, maximizing in-person learning for the students of the UW System.” 

“During the last two years, there is no doubt education at the UW campuses would have been nowhere near as meaningful without Tommy Thompson.”

While Thompson "did not seek this responsibility," he said he was grateful to "lead in the only way I know how — with all my heart and the deepest affection for this state and its many gifts." 

He said he went into the job knowing "that I was needed, and that it would be temporary." Still, Thompson wrote he is satisfied with his achievements and is confident the UW System is stronger than ever. 

The onboarding process for the next president, he said, will require "full attention" from the System. The Board of Regents is currently in the process of searching for a hire, which is expected to be announced next month

A closed session is meeting this afternoon to select finalists. 

Manydeeds, in a press release, praised Thompson for being "a relentless champion of the University of Wisconsin." 

"It showed in everything he did as System president," he said. "He raised the profile of public higher education in our state and ensured that it is relevant, not only to students, parents, faculty, and staff whose leadership we entrusted to him, but also to all Wisconsinites."

In Thompson's goodbye letter, he signed off, saying, "My mother was Irish, so I take my leave with mixed emotions and an everlasting affection for this institution I have been proud to lead." 

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