UW System's Tommy Thompson resigning effective March 18

Interim University of Wisconsin President Tommy Thompson on Friday submitted his letter of resignation effective in March, a move that comes as the committee working to name a permanent leader prepares to select finalists for the position.

Thompson, the 80-year-old former governor, took on the job as interim president of the UW System on July 1, 2020. He came on board after a failed search to find a replacement for Ray Cross.

Thompson, in his resignation letter submitted to the Board of Regents, said he was honored to hold the position "particularly through what could have been its darkest time." His resignation is effective March 18.

"While I firmly believe that the pursuit of excellence never ends, I am satisfied that I have accomplished what has been asked of me and what the people of this state have sought," Thompson wrote. "I am confidant our foundation is as strong as ever. It is time to allow you and the board the ability to prepare for a successor to lead the UW System into the years ahead."

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The letter comes as a search committee nears selecting finalists for a permanent president. The committee expects to conduct interviews this month and name its choice in February. The hiring decision will fall to the full Board of Regents.

Thompson, a former U.S. Health and Human Services secretary, advocated for strong COVID-19 measures on university campuses, including frequent testing, vaccinations and mask mandates. He also pushed for the return to in-person classes in the fall of 2021.

A Republican, Thompson also worked to improve the university's often contentious relationship with the GOP-controlled state Legislature. When some Republicans threatened to sue Thompson for not seeking legislative approval for the university's COVID-19 policies, Thompson refused to budge.

"I’m not going to be intimidated," he said in August.

Ultimately, the Republican lawmakers backed down.

GOP legislators and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers also lifted an eight-year freeze on in-state tuition and returned rate-setting powers to the regents under Thompson’s watch.

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The regents ultimately chose not to raise in-state tuition for the 2021-22 academic year. Thompson said in his resignation letter that he feels he has restored elected officials' confidence in system spending.

"Tommy Thompson was the right man at the right time," said University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents President Edmund Manydeeds in a statement. "His leadership has helped carry us through a pandemic and set the standard for managing during a crisis."

Thompson is the only person to have been elected to four, four-year terms as governor. He stepped down midway through his fourth term in 2001 to serve as then-President George W. Bush’s health secretary.

Thompson mounted a brief run for president in 2008 and also ran for U.S. Senate in 2012, losing to Democrat Tammy Baldwin. He was a member of the state Assembly in 1971 when it voted to create the UW System.


University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents President Edmund Manydeeds III

"Tommy Thompson was 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. As important, President Thompson has been a relentless champion of the University of Wisconsin. It showed in everything he did as System President. 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.

"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. We are proud of what he accomplished in his time here and consider him, as always, a lifelong friend of the University of Wisconsin. We were fortunate to have such a strong advocate and evaluator lead the UW System."

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester)

"Tommy Thompson assumed the role of Interim System President with honor and determination. His priorities were to give students a world-class education by upgrading and providing programs to help them succeed now and in the future.

"During his 18 months leading the organization, he faced challenges no president had experienced before. 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.

"Throughout his career, Tommy has been a leader and a mentor, making lasting contributions to our state. I am very grateful to have had him as a mentor when I volunteered on his first campaign for governor. I am proud to call him my friend.

"I want to thank Tommy Thompson for his tireless efforts to help shape our future workforce and for his decades of public service. While this chapter is ending, I know this won’t be the last contribution he provides for the state of Wisconsin."

UW-Whitewater Interim Chancellor Jim Henderson

"On behalf of the Warhawk family, I’d like to extend my deepest appreciation to President Tommy Thompson for his service to the UW System and the state of Wisconsin. He has led the System through one of the most challenging times in our history with unmatched energy and passion. We couldn’t have asked for a more enthusiastic champion of UW-Whitewater and the state universities as a whole — someone who fundamentally understands our collective educational, economic, and cultural impact and fiercely promotes our contributions. His tireless advocacy and efforts to provide the universities with resources to carry out our unique missions have been critical to the success of our students and will be felt for years to come. And we will always remember his embrace of the Warhawk Strut!"

State Rep. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills)

"Tommy Thompson loves Wisconsin and it showed during his leadership for the UW-System. I want to thank Tommy for his continued service to the state and for helping set a course for its future. 

"Wisconsin is lucky to have a leader like Tommy Thompson. He has always been there when we needed him. His leadership as Governor helped deliver the largest property tax cut in state history, gave parents educational options, and reformed our welfare system. 

"As UW-System President, Tommy brought that same energy, experience, and willingness to listen to higher education. He guided UW-System at a time of uncertainty and whoever replaces him will have big shoes to fill. 

"Good luck on your next adventure, Tommy. A grateful state thanks you for your service."

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