New leadership center inspired by Gov. Thompson’s legacy

May 26, 2017 By Greg Bump
“Do something you want to do. Life is too short to be at a job you don’t like. Find your passion and follow it," former Gov. Tommy Thompson told the graduates.

As governor, Tommy Thompson drew on university research to inform public policy and was a strong supporter of his alma mater, UW–Madison. He addressed graduates in May 2016 at the Kohl Center. Photo: Bryce Richter

A new center named for Wisconsin’s longest-serving governor and dedicated to the study of public leadership is proposed to be housed jointly at the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s La Follette School of Public Affairs and Department of Political Science.

The Tommy G. Thompson Center for Public Leadership will make significant contributions to public policy and leadership, Chancellor Rebecca Blank said.

“Gov. Thompson is a distinguished alumnus who has been a constant supporter of the university,” Blank said in a statement. “He has helped build our capacity in world-changing areas such as biotechnology. Now through this center, his legacy will help forge closer ties between our researchers and state policy-makers in ways that benefit the people of Wisconsin and beyond. We are grateful for the state’s investment in and support of this work. “

Prompted by political ccience Professor Ryan Owens, faculty from the La Follette School and Department of Political Science began developing the concept of the center two years ago, when they met with Thompson to propose the idea. Faculty committees in the La Follette School and Department of Political Science unanimously voted to approve moving forward with the concept of the center prior to legislative interest in funding it. Its primary goals are to focus on ways to improve public leadership and to improve government.

“Gov. 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,” La Follette School Director Donald Moynihan said in a statement. “[H]e is a proven and inspiring leader at a time when we need such qualities in public service. These aspects of his character will define the proposed center.”

The director of the Thompson Center will be a faculty member jointly recommended by the UW–Madison chancellor and the dean of the College of Letters & Science and approved by the center’s public leadership board. The center will draw faculty from the La Follette School, the Department of Political Science, and other units on campus.

The center will receive $1.5 million from the state annually, with $500,000 of that funding each year targeted to bringing speakers to campuses across the UW System. Private funding is also being sought.

In recent years, 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. At the school’s 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 and political science department also nominated him for an honorary degree, which the university conferred in 2016.

As with the La Follette School, the Thompson Center will be nonpartisan and focused on quality research to serve the Wisconsin Idea. Faculty from the La Follette School and the Department of Political Science will serve as an advisory committee that guides the center.