Two governors’ education legacies compared
By Matt Pommer
Former Gov. Tommy Thompson will get an honorary degree this month from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is being cited for his dedication to the university and the “Wisconsin Idea.”
Thompson’s life is both a Horatio Alger-type story and a love affair with the university. It also is in stark contrast to Gov. Scott Walker.
He grew up a grocer’s son in Elroy, earned bachelor’s and law degrees at the Madison campus, then entered a successful career in politics.
The grocery store was a family business in which everyone helped out. Thompson worked as a campus-area bartender to help pay college tuition. Work came naturally to him.
He first ran for the Assembly in 1966 and won an upset victory in the Republican primary. He would tell how his father gave him $5 per day to help in the election. It was one of his favorite yarns.
Thompson said the best campaign investment might have been buying drinks for early-morning patrons at taverns that were part of small-town America a half century ago.
The morning drinkers were likely to be there for much of the day, perhaps extolling the virtues of the young man Thompson who had been there earlier.
He would serve in the Assembly for 20 years before winning his first of four terms as governor. He would later take a cabinet job under President W. Bush. Republicans brought him back to the political ring in 2012 as their candidate for the U.S. Senate. He lost that race to Democrat Tammy Baldwin.
But the UW remains Thompson’s love. He says the research gains will spur economic growth in all parts of the state.
As governor, Thompson provided extra state funding for the Madison campus to promote biotechnology and medical research.
Sixteen years ago, Gov. Thompson came to deliver his annual State of the State message to the Legislature with a test tube of DNA strands in his hand. He called it “the face of the future.”
Thompson continued to play the university champion even after he left the state’s political scene.
In a recent newspaper article in a Madison weekly, professor Michael Sussman, director of the UW-Madison Biotechnology Center, recalled that the then-governor spent hours with him learning how DNA works.
“My experience with Tommy was amazing, I had never worked with a Republican in my life,” said Sussman.
The scene has changed. Gov. Walker sought to change the “Wisconsin Idea” of the university helping all aspects of the state. A Republican-controlled Assembly rejected Walker’s idea.
Walker’s budgets have slashed hundreds of millions of state tax dollars from the UW System. The Board of Regents, dominated by Walker appointees, discouraged a public presentation by chancellors on the impact of the cuts.
Walker, who left college without a degree, has suggested high school students consider getting a vocational, rather than college, education. Thompson, by comparison, is a champion for going to college.
“Going to a university transforms you. The stimulus, the intellectual capacity that you interact with—it makes you a whole different person,” Thompson said “It gives you the opportunity and the ability to do just about anything.”
Thompson is living proof of the statement.