Tommy Thompson is not usually one to pick a fight. But he’s not one to back down, either, when one is dumped in his lap.
He made that clear this month when he rebuked state Sen. Steve Nass. R-Whitewater, and the Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules, after they demanded that all campuses in the UW System submit any proposals for COVID-19 regulations — such as masking, testing or vaccinations — to the Legislature for approval.
Thompson, the popular four-term Republican governor, who currently serves as interim UW System president, said the UW wouldn’t submit such proposals and when Nass threatened a lawsuit Thompson said that would be a “big mistake.”
“We got case law going back to 1895 that shows we have the authority to run our buildings and, of course, to protect our students and employees,” Thompson said, “If we have to pass every rule by the Legislature, then the Legislature’s going to run the university. I don’t think they want to do that. I think they want me to do it and take all the criticism, which I take.”
Indeed, we do.
Nass, whose district includes the Town of Wheatland in Kenosha County, said it was “sad that interim President Tommy Thompson has once again shown his belief in big government control over the rights of individuals to make their own health related decisions.”
He said, “This fight is not solely about mask mandates or testing requirements. This fight is really about the desire of multiple chancellors to dictate every student, employee and campus visitor be vaccinated for COVID-19 or be banished from their campuses.”
That’s really not what is happening. Thompson has directed a very measured approach to controlling COVID on state campuses. Most campuses have masking requirements indoors and require weekly testing for unvaccinated students.
That may be a bridge too far and some object to weekly COVID tests for unvaccinated students. We expect the UW system will evaluate that as the semester goes on and drop it if the COVID situation on campuses does not warrant it.
Thompson has thus far strongly resisted implementing a vaccination requirement on campuses, although more than 760 colleges and universities across the country don’t let unvaccinated students set foot on campus and that includes six of the Big Ten schools.
Thompson says he is focused on encouraging students to get vaccinated with incentives and reminders that doing so will make in-person classes possible. One such UW program aims to get a 70 percent vaccination rate for students on campuses and fully vaccinated students can then be eligible for a $7,000 scholarship. Up to 70 scholarships will be awarded.
That approach appears to be effective and this week UW-Madison reported that student and staff vaccinations topped 90 percent.
Still, Thompson says the UW System will do what it has to do to keep campuses open and safe and healthy.
“If I have to do an audible at the line … if the virus gets worse, if we have to do it (require vaccinations), we will. We will consider any and all things in order to keep our schools open, but right now, no mandatory vaccinations.”
That’s a practical, reasonable approach by Thompson and the UW System and that’s where these decisions should be made.
State Sen. Nass should stay out of Thompson’s way and let him do his job.