Calling the process of building the 2021-23 biennial budget "one of the most significant actions" in the University of Wisconsin System's history, interim President Tommy Thompson delivered a State of the University address Thursday, Aug. 20 that urged support for higher education and a reconsideration of System priorities.

Thompson, a former four-term governor of the state who announced Tuesday he will seek a 3.5% budget increase for the 2021-23 biennium, highlighted 10 key initiatives that make up his request to Gov. Tony Evers.

"The challenge is clear. We need to create and refine ways to diversify our revenue streams and modernize our finances," Thompson said. "While we continue our central commitment to meet the needs of the state, we're going to need to do some things differently."

Among his proposals is the Wisconsin Tuition Promise, which would expand across the System a UW-Madison program providing tuition and fees for all Wisconsin resident students whose households fall under a $60,000 income threshold. He also emphasized a need for improved online education opportunities, support for Wisconsin teachers and modernized administrative and financial practices, calling UW's infrastructure "the most arcane system in the country."

The System also plans to request an additional $1.2 billion in capital budget authority to renovate and repair facilities.

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State money makes up about 17% of the UW System's revenue, a significant decline from when Thompson was governor over two decades ago and the state picked up 33% of revenue. Since then, tuition has largely supplanted the losses, said vice president for finance Sean Nelson.

Though Thompson acknowledged his request might be "a large ask," he cited two recent lapses that returned millions of dollars back to the state in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and said the budget increase will get the System "back close to even." Last biennium, the System bore the majority of a 5% state budget cut under Evers, who announced in July that he plans an additional $250 million cut for the next budget.

Board President Drew Petersen praised the budget as "realistic, assertive and innovative," and other regents expressed support for the financial requests.

"I like (the initiatives) very much," Regent Scott Beightol said. "We come to these meetings and budgets with dry numbers. You gave us a vision and that's so important."

Regent Tracey Klein specifically thanked Thompson for his attention to expanding education in Wisconsin prisons and removing inefficient System processes. It is important, she said, "to make this board more strategic and to make sure that we've got the right oversight from the Legislature and the governor's office, but not so that we can't move and make good and strategic decisions agilely."

Petersen informed Regents that the System had foreshadowed the budget with Evers and legislative leaders.

"This is likely the most important budget the UW System has ever faced in its 50-year history," Petersen said. "I believe all parties appreciate the direction we are taking, and we look forward to working with them as we move forward."

Aside from the address, Thompson offered updates on the System's COVID-19 testing protocol for the fall, which he called "second to none."

"The planning, the resources, the attention, the care that has gone into the upcoming return of students to the UW campus communities is unprecedented and extraordinary. I am really proud of what we are pulling together," Thompson said. "Testing is what separates us, I think, from just about any other university across America."

The 12 System universities, excluding UW-Madison, will have the capacity to test over 350,000 students, according to a press release Aug. 6. The System has negotiated a contract with healthcare manufacturer Quidel to obtain 36 antigen testing machines — three per campus — that can produce results within minutes and will supplement PCR, or traditional nasal swab, testing, Thompson said.

Campuses will receive about 28,000 PCR tests for students showing COVID-19 symptoms, while the System will reserve another 6,000 for future use. About 317,000 additional antigen tests will be available to test students living in residence halls, who will be tested every two weeks.

"We're going to have breakouts, and we're going to try to be quick to find out where those eruptions are so we can take care of them," said Thompson, who also emphasized the importance of other health and safety measures. He said the System is in discussion with nearby bar owners to encourage "conservatism" in who they admit.

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