University of Wisconsin System interim president Tommy Thompson is a Republican who once served as the secretary of health and human services under the George W. Bush administration. He’s also pretty well known in Wisconsin — he was the state’s longest-serving governor.
And now he’s defying his own party’s state lawmakers — some his former colleagues — to maintain COVID mitigation policies at the school system.
Earlier this month, the Wisconsin Senate passed a motion introduced by state Sen. Steve Nass (R) that requires UW to get the green light from the Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules for its COVID-19 mitigation measures, such as mask mandates or regular testing. The motion passed along party lines.
The Republican-led committee, which consists of six Republicans and four Democrats, would likely vote to block some or all of the measures.
Nass and state Rep. Adam Neylon (R) gave UW System leadership 30 days to adhere to the new rule or “cease implementation and enforcement of these policies, whether current or future.”
The System is already implementing COVID policies as it always has on several of its campuses, such as indoor masking requirements. The Madison and Milwaukee campuses are requiring students and employees who haven’t provided proof of vaccination to undergo weekly testing.
Thompson told reporters on Tuesday that that wouldn’t be changing. He said Republican lawmakers’ efforts to restrict policies that would help combat the spread of COVID-19 was “both wrong on the law and wrong as a matter of public policy,” according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
“Had this happened last academic year, the university might never have been able to set up community testing and vaccination sites, or even isolate sick students,” Thompson said, according to the local paper. “It would have been a disaster.”
Thompson said the System won’t be seeking approval from the Republican-led committee to pass mitigation measures and is prepared to bring potential legal action to the state Supreme Court.
“I’m fairly confident we’re going to win. I have no doubts (of) that if the Legislature sues us,” Thompson said, according to the Milwaukee paper. Thompson acknowledged he doubts Republican lawmakers would take the matter to court, but that UW would fight “aggressively” if need be.
“I’m not abdicating my responsibility. We will contest it,” Thompson reportedly said. “I don’t want a fight with the Legislature, but we will contest it aggressively, whether it be the circuit court, the Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court.”
Thompson reiterated that UW thinks it has a “great case,” arguing that the university isn’t restricted by a March Wisconsin Supreme Court’s ruling that struck down a statewide mask mandate. He cited a provision in the state statute while arguing that UW has independent authority to run its schools.
Nass pushed back at Thompson’s assertion on Tuesday, telling MJS that the UW System’s “Ivory Tower administrators” are using COVID-19 restrictions “to control every adult that dares to walk on their campuses.”
Nass gave UW until Sept. 2 to adhere to the directive passed by Republican lawmakers, before he would request the Republican state Assembly and Senate leadership to take legal action “to force the UW System to comply with state law.”
“It is 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,” Nass wrote in a statement, according to MJS.
MJS reported that Thompson believes that he is “still a strong Republican,” but that he puts his Republican bonafides to the side while “I run the university to the best of my ability.”
Wisconsin Republican lawmakers, some of whom are Thompson’s former colleagues, have largely sat on the sidelines when it comes to encouraging the public to get vaccinated. Instead, state Republicans have supported legislation that blocks vaccine requirements in workplaces and elsewhere.