What Would Tommy Do?

A Republican governor was once UW’s greatest champion. Those days are long gone.

By - Apr 18th, 2016 04:01 pm
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Rogers and COWS are treated as poison by the ruling Republicans, subjected to sweeping open records requests by lawmakers in search of scandal and targeted in overheated exposés from the partisan conservative press.

COWS still has projects in Wisconsin communities and works in 45 other states, including economically resurgent California, where it consults on transportation policy. In December, Rogers wrote an opinion column for the Journal Sentinel arguing that Wisconsin’s faltering middle class won’t be revived until the voters dump the state’s do-nothing political leaders. One assumes this was coolly noted at the Capitol.

When our telephone interview wraps up, and I’ve mentioned that I have a phoner scheduled with the former governor, Rogers closes by saying, “Give Tommy my regards.”

When we talk, Thompson is forthright: He won’t badmouth the officeholders “who have the job I love.” But when I bring up their relationship with UW leaders, he tells me, “I wish they got along better. “

“You can’t build that university by fighting it,” he says. “You got to work together. Everybody has got to put their shoulder to the wheel and get the job done for the state of Wisconsin.” His advice to UW System President Ray Cross? Invite lawmakers to tour the state’s 13 four-year campuses. Let them see for themselves what fantastic places they are.

“Every time I go to the campuses and see the kind of research and development they’re doing, it makes me proud to be part of it,” he adds.

“That pride has to got to be instilled into the governor and the Legislature. They got to realize they’re only paying around 31, 32% of the cost of the university system. If anybody comes up to me and says ‘I’ll be your biggest job creator. You pay 30 cents and I’ll pay 70 cents,’ who wouldn’t take that offer? When you look at it that way, the UW is a huge moneymaker for the state. It’s a huge economic driver.”

Thompson’s final “State of the State” addresses in 2000 and 2001 are chock full of UW strategies to grow the Wisconsin economy. There’s “the Madison Initiative,” “the Milwaukee Idea,” “the Chippewa Valley Initiative,” plus the touting of expansive campus projects that began in the early 1990s, including WISTAR and BioStar.

All together, he said in 2001, 4,025 campus building projects — at a collective cost of almost $2 billion — broke ground across the state. The year before, Thompson held a test tube of DNA strands in his hand as he told the Legislature: “Ladies and gentlemen, the face of our future lies in this little tube and many others like it in laboratories across Wisconsin.”

The four-term governor championed “the New Wisconsin Idea. “He described it as a bold new partnership between the UW and the business community that would produce high-skill, high-paying technology jobs for state residents.

“People were just beginning to understand how our reliance on manufacturing was not pushing the state forward,” says George Lightbourn, a top state manager in the Thompson years. “Here we have a governor who early on saw the power of biotechnology.”

At the spring commencement on May 13, UW-Madison will grant Thompson an honorary degree for meritorious activity. (See related story, “UW to honor Thompson.”)

Lightbourn argues that the massive investments in life science faculty, classrooms and buildings will prove to be Thompson’s greatest legacy in the long run, surpassing even school choice and welfare reform.

“Decades from now it will still be yielding benefits to the state,” Lightbourn predicts.

Reasonable people can argue whether the UW accomplished enough with these new resources.

But what can’t be questioned was Thompson’s unique skill to promote the state and forge partnerships with his political opposites on common goals. His teaming with UW-Madison Chancellor Donna Shalala — an unabashed Clinton-style liberal who shared his ambitions to build the UW — was one of the great stories of the Thompson years. It was Shalala, with Thompson’s support, who initiated the era of private fundraising for campus buildings.

Thompson also paired with Assembly Speaker Tom Loftus — the brainy and savvy Democratic leader of the day — in his first term as governor. As “a bipartisan committee of two,” they toured every campus in the state to build rapport with the UW students and staff. “We were together so often that in Superior he gave my speech and I gave his speech,” Thompson recalls with a hearty laugh.

Of course, it’s that sort of bipartisan “let’s do it for Wisconsin” attitude that is sorely missing at the Capitol today. Total Republican control of the executive, legislative and judicial wings produces none of the required outreach and compromise that comes with divided government.

When I asked Thompson how he would mend the Capitol’s broken relationship with the university, he offered neither bromides nor magic fairy dust but commonsense steps. Thompson envisions a successful and outward-focused university system at the very heart of the state’s economic strategy for the 21st century.

Build on the strengths of the 13 four-year campuses, plus the Extension. Use them to bring the pols and professors together to work with regional civic and business leaders. Re-invigorate the campus visitor committees to strengthen those ties. UW-Madison, in particular, needs to better showcase the breadth and depth of its research to the broader community. Strengthen UW-Milwaukee. Also, says Thompson, smooth out the campus connections to the K-12 schools and the tech centers to better serve students.

Most intriguing of all, Thompson proposes creation of a special economic zone connecting Madison and Milwaukee, the state’s two largest metro communities and the centers of Wisconsin’s business and educational muscle. Echoing the I-94 corridor strategy advanced a few years ago by retired insurance executive Tom Hefty, Thompson sees great synergy if UW-Madison, Marquette, UW-Milwaukee, and all the tech and private schools are harnessed in a common vision for building Wisconsin.

“We want to develop an economic zone like the Research Triangle in North Carolina,” says Thompson, referring to the Raleigh-Durham region and the collaborative effort of government, university and business leaders beginning in the 1950s to capitalize on the brainpower of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Duke University and North Carolina State University.

“We’ve never had that kind of cooperation. I started on it, but I left too soon,” he says. “We need to build that — a zone of economic development and educational excellence between Milwaukee and Madison.”

Right off the bat, Thompson envisions an economic summit putting together Madison and Milwaukee area leaders with legislators to work out a strategy. “It could be such a dynamo for growth,” he enthuses.

Any takers for a WWTD bracelet?

This story first ran in the Madison weekly, Isthmus. 

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Categories: Education, Politics

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