Tommy Thompson resigning from post as interim president of UW System

Thompson took on role July 1, 2020; his resignation is effective March 18, 2022

Tommy Thompson
University of Wisconsin System Interim President Tommy Thompson talks about his vision for UW-Superior after a tour of the UWS Lake Superior Research Institute Tuesday, July 13, 2021. The former Wisconsin governor recently announced he will resign as head of the UW System on March 18.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

University of Wisconsin System interim President Tommy Thompson plans to resign from the position March 18.

The former Wisconsin governor took on the role July 1, 2020, after being hired that June by the system's Board of Regents. Thompson has been filling the void after a failed search for a replacement for former UW System President Ray Cross, who retired in 2020 after serving as president since 2014. Thompson was 78 at the time of being hired for the interim role.

Thompson submitted his letter of resignation Friday, Jan. 7, to Board of Regents President Edmund Manydeeds, the same day a special regents committee would meet to select finalists to replace him.

Thompson said it has been an honor serving as system president "particularly through what could have been its darkest time."

"While challenging on many fronts, we worked together to continue to provide the quality of education our students deserve and parents expect," said Thompson.


System campuses closed their doors in spring 2020 once COVID-19 began to rapidly spread throughout the state, and classes went virtual. And the start of the 2020-21 school year had its challenges with entire dorms entering quarantines and three campuses shutting down for two weeks.

Thompson told Manydeeds as of October, "every campus in our system was financially stable."

"In incredibly challenging times for campus administrators, faculty, academic and university staff, and our students and their families, we were able to balance the books and formulate responses to lagging state investment and a continued freeze in tuition," said Thompson.

Thompson has been a vocal proponent of system employees and students being vaccinated against COVID-19, coining the term " Smash COVID ."

Thompson has traveled to campuses across the state to rally students to get vaccinated. At one stop at UW-Eau Claire event, Thompson, chancellor Jim Schmidt and students took swings at a carnival-style game with a large wooden mallet. The mallet has become famous after Thompson appeared in multiple videos obliterating various fruits with it to illustrate the former governor's intention to "Smash COVID" at campuses.

Charles Cornett is a chemistry professor at UW-Platteville and member of the Faculty Representatives to the UW Board of Regents. Cornett made a point of thanking Thompson for his work on keeping campuses safe during the pandemic.

"Having him in that position with his contacts, his knowledge and his absolute passion to see the UW System thrive was absolutely the best thing that could have happened to us," Cornett said. "Since then, Thompson has aggressively lobbied for state colleges, negotiated with lawmakers to lift a near decade-long freeze on undergraduate tuition increases, and oversaw student vaccination incentives and community COVID-19 testing at campuses."

Cornett said he hopes the next system leader shows the same type of leadership and also knows the importance of working with shared governance groups.


In a statement , Manydeeds thanked Thompson for his leadership over the past year and a half.

"Tommy Thompson was the right man at the right time," said Manydeeds. "His leadership has helped us carry through a pandemic and set the standard for managing during crisis. As important, President Thompson has been a relentless champion of the University of Wisconsin."

UW-Whitewater interim Chancellor Jim Henderson also praised Thompson for his leadership.

"He has led the System through one of the most challenging times in our history with unmatched energy and passion," Henderson said in a prepared statement. "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."

UW-La Crosse Chancellor Joe Gow added to the praise, saying it's been inspiring to work with the former governor and secretary of the U.S. Health and Human Services.

"It's really kind of mind-boggling to think of all the things that Gov. Thompson has gotten done in a relatively short period of time," Gow said. "I think the system is just extraordinarily well positioned for the future."

In Thompson's letter, he said regents will identify a permanent successor "soon."

"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.


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