Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Updated statement from La Follette School Director Donald Moynihan regarding Tommy G. Thompson Center on Public Leadership

Commence Thompson BR16 1628In just the last week, state political leaders announced a new Tommy G. Thompson Center on Public Leadership at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Governor Thompson’s rich legacy deserves such recognition. He is a policy iconoclast who values quality research and analysis from across the political spectrum and has been a tireless champion of UW-Madison, his alma mater.

As Wisconsin’s longest-serving governor, he is a proven and inspiring leader at a time when we need such qualities in public service. In recent years, Governor Thompson has engaged with the La Follette School and its students on several occasions. He spoke at the La Follette School’s annual Offner Lecture; and at our 2016 graduation, he told students: “Perhaps no school within the UW System has as great an obligation to embrace the Wisconsin Idea than the school from which you are graduating today.” The La Follette School also nominated him for an honorary degree, which UW-Madison conferred in 2016.

The La Follette School and UW-Madison’s Department of Political Science developed the concept of the Thompson Center over the last two years and met with Governor Thompson to propose this idea. Centers work with existing Departments and Schools across campus, drawing on faculty expertise. UW-Madison’s Institute for Research on Poverty and Elections Research Center are two examples. In the same way, the Thompson Center could support faculty research and student scholarships, and could convene campus discussions. I therefore see the Thompson Center as consistent with the work we already do on campus.

The vision of the Center proposed and approved by our faculty was non-partisan, with funding from private donors. In recent weeks, legislative leadership became interested in funding the Thompson Center. On Tuesday, May 23, they announced these intentions, and two days later, the Joint Finance Committee approved language governing the center. One significant difference with our original vision of the Center is that the Joint Finance Committee added an external seven-person board that would review the Center’s budget. This board would include four appointees made by the Speaker of the Assembly and Senate Majority Leader. I have expressed concern with the appointment process and have called for a more bipartisan structure before the final legislation is passed.

Some are concerned that the Center could become a partisan enterprise. This was never the goal of the Center that the La Follette School and Department of Political Science proposed and approved, and my hope is that there are campus checks that would prevent this from happening. Importantly, the Center still will have to be consistent with UW-Madison governance processes, gaining formal approval from the University Academic Planning Council. In addition, the Center’s original plan called for a steering committee of La Follette School and Department of Political Science faculty. While the legislative language shifts more authority to the external Board, in my view, a faculty steering committee is still needed to be to satisfy university governance standards.

While the La Follette School cannot control the State Legislature’s decisions, we can work to make the Center non-partisan and focused on quality research to serve the Wisconsin Idea. The La Follette School already values ideological diversity as it contributes to our mission and looks forward to engaging with the Thompson Center to further that goal.

From conversations that I have had with Governor Thompson, I know that he cares deeply about bipartisanship. Ultimately, UW-Madison and the La Follette School value rigor in how we do research, teach our students, and offer advice to policymakers. The Thompson Center has enormous potential to improve the study of public leadership in Wisconsin in a way that honors its namesake. We will do all that we can to realize that potential.

Note: This is an update of a May 24, 2017, statement by Director Donald Moynihan.