covid cases surge campuses open
Interim University of Wisconsin System President Tommy Thompson initiated a system-wide COVID-19 dashboard to track outbreaks on college campuses.(Photo Milwaukee Press Club and WisPolitics.com.)

Interim President, Tommy Thompson, also said he can garner bipartisan support for investing in the state’s college system. 

With 350,000 COVID-19 tests ordered for the first start of a college school year during a pandemic, interim UW System President Tommy Thompson said Friday he is “doing all he can” to protect students and staff but will not say publicly what the threshold of positive COVID-19 cases will be before a campus will be shut down. 

“They are in my head,” said Thompson when asked during a panel discussion with journalists about his parameters for closing down campuses. “Even the people around me don’t know.”

Thompson is the former four-term governor of Wisconsin and national health and human services secretary under President George W. Bush. He offered his views on a host of topics impacting the state’s university system as the featured speaker at Friday’s Newsmaker Luncheon hosted by the Milwaukee Press Club and WisPolitics.com.

This included COVID-19. 

Despite an unwillingness to provide the public with virus-related parameters for campus closures, Thompson said he has implemented a campus-wide mask mandate, is creating a COVID-19 dashboard to report cases on campus, has implemented a regime for cleaning classrooms and dormitories, and has written letters to sororities and fraternities instructing them not to host big parties. 

He’s realistic about the impact of the latter.

“I’m telling them no big parties. But it’s human nature,” Thompson said. “At least I’m trying.”

Thompson said he knows from talking with students and parents that many want the opportunity to return to in-person classes, but everyone has the option to attend virtual classes. 

“My message to students is this is up to you,” Thompson said. “You can stay in your mom and dad’s basement or you can stay at your place on campus. It’s up to them to do this safely to stay as healthy as possible.”

Thompson’s appearance comes a day after the UW Board of Regents approved his state budget request to increase system-wide spending by $96 million over the next budget cycle. This is a 3.5 percent increase for each year of the next two-year budget that begins July 21. 

Thompson’s budget proposal includes a request for the UW System to borrow up to $1 billion to mitigate the losses caused by the pandemic. Unlike the state government or the state’s vocational college system, the UW System does not have borrowing capabilities. 

The next stop for Thompson’s budget is Gov. Tony Evers. He will decide what components make it into the state budget before sending it to the Legislature for approval. Evers said he spoke to Thompson Wednesday about the proposal.

“Was I encouraged that he was asking for and talking about the right things? Yes,” Evers told reporters Friday during a conference call. “But I made no commitment to what I am supporting and not supporting at this time.”

Whether Thompson can create bipartisan harmony between Evers and the GOP-controlled Legislature remains to be seen. He expressed confidence he could bring the parties together to coalesce around a plan to pump money into the UW system, something Republicans have not done in recent years. 

“I think you need someone like me to say, ‘Come on. It’s time to start working together,’” Thompson said.  “After elections it is time to forget about the R’s and the D’s and find solutions.”

Thompson’s 10-point proposal includes the creation of a distance-learning system, designed to encourage the 815,000 state residents who started college but quit before earning a degree. His plan also includes free tuition for students who come from families who earn less than $60,000 a year. 

“I want the Legislature to buy into this idea to grow the UW System, to help it be the best economic engine it can be,” Thompson said.