Wisconsin Can Be Proud Of UW System President Tommy Thompson

All across Wisconsin, one thing can be said with a high degree of certainty. Parents of kids attending state universities, professors and staff at the state schools, and communities who are proud to be home to these centers of higher education are all cheering UW System President Tommy Thompson.

And I suspect cheering loudly, too.

The reason is that Thompson directly challenged the Republican leaders in the state legislature who insist they must have control on COVID-19 policies within the UW System. The Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules voted earlier this month in favor of a requirement that the System submit any plans for COVID-19 policies to the committee as emergency rules within 30 days. Failing that the System would need to drop mandates for any such measures.

Over the decades we have watched, again and again, how unsuccessful it has been to force Thompson to take actions contrary to common sense. Such was the case Tuesday when the former Wisconsin Governor and former Secretary of Health and Human Services rebuked the legislative leaders, informing them university leaders don’t need legislative approval to manage the schools.

Left unstated, at least out loud, was “Case closed.”

The reason for the cheering from Sturgeon Bay to Cassville is that people understand the severity of the fourth wave of the pandemic and the woefully inadequate and anemic response from the Republican-controlled legislature. After having watched like everyone else in the state how the pandemic has run wild and now morphed into a deadly variant, Thompson is not about to allow those who are partly to blame for the current situation to have full control over the System’s plans.

When the counter-punch from the legislature was delivered Tuesday by State Senator Steve Nass, who threatened a lawsuit, Thompson was ready to stand his ground on behalf of those he has dedicated himself to fight for.

“I’m not going to be intimidated. Even though I don’t want to pick a fight with the Legislature, I’m going to stand my ground.”

The applause one hears for Thompson this week is not new when it comes to his position.

When Thompson was named the UW System’s interim president there was statewide applause, from all points of the political compass, and all sectors of the state economy.  There was not only optimism about his selection but a deep conviction that Wisconsin’s senior statesman was the person with the skills and steady hands that could guide the UW-System through very challenging times.

From budget fights to the crushing pandemic Thompson reminds us that he is not behind his desk just to make a cameo appearance every now and then. He is invested in the fights so to make our university system stronger and smarter. And with his actions this week he is ensuring that the importance of higher education does not get mired down in the political theater of the anti-mask and mandate crowd who love to create smoke and rhetoric at the statehouse.

Thompson is again proving to be the right person, for the right job, at the right time.

And so it goes.

John Dean Recalled Gordon Liddy During UW-Madison Law School Speech

G Gordon Liddy in 1977 after his release from prison: he had served four years of a 20-year sentence for conspiracy, burglary and illegal wiretapping CREDIT: FRED R CONRAD/NYTNS/REDUX/EYEVINE

As a Richard Nixon history buff, I would be remiss if not commenting about the death of G. Gordon Liddy. It was, after all, his character, or lack thereof, which dealt one of the harshest blows to the Nixon White House. He masterminded dirty tricks and created the upside-down burglary in the Watergate complex. Others were also more than complicit in a series of crimes and attempts to undermine the law, but Liddy holds a special place for being ruthless. I have always questioned if he had a moral anchor. He seemed to relish in the wildly absurd, without a care about the institutions of the nation that were being damaged.

As my mind flashed back over the decades of Nixon, Watergate, and the newly departed I landed on a memory from 2013. John Dean—yes, that one–spoke at the UW-Madison Law School. I attended and was really pleased to have first-hand proximity to a central figure from a chapter of history that simply enthralls me. He was White House Counsel for President Richard Nixon from July 1970 until April 1973 and would be found guilty of a single felony of obstructing justice.

John Dean October 2013 at UW Madison Law School Credit: Gregory Humphrey

As John Dean started his presentation late that afternoon the lady introducing him had a typical-sized microphone that she was to hand over for his use.  Dean grinned, and said he had one attached to his jacket, and “my voice seems to be able to be picked up by small microphones.”

That set the tone for the time he was on stage. By being smart, agile with words, and comfortable in his own skin Dean held everyone’s attention.

Recounting Watergate to an audience that was largely older and informed made for some of the events in the mid-1970s seem almost a comedy routine.  If it all had not been so serious it might have made for a slap-stick movie.

Using a power-point style of presentation Dean showed a picture of the desk in the Watergate complex.  It was when he said this was the sight where the burglars were crouched while wearing suits and plastic gloves that made the audience break into laughter.  The fact they had large amounts of cash on them, and tell-tale signs that led them to people who worked in, or were connected with the White House, made it seem even more illogical.  No matter how many times the story is told it still seems utterly absurd.

No one could hold back, however, when Gordon Liddy was referred to by Dean as someone “not up to the Maxwell Smart test.”   

Dean concluded his remarks on a tougher and more biting topic. It was the fact that at least 21 lawyers were on the wrong side of the law in the Nixon Watergate mess that should be a prime lesson recalled about that entire episode. The reason for the high numbers of otherwise smart men being pulled so far astray, Dean noted, came down to incompetence, the arrogance of the law, and too much loyalty to President Nixon

Liddy was one of those lawyers.

I do wish to leave this post on a lighter note about Liddy. Wednesday morning on NPR someone quipped a person has to be over 60 to recall Liddy as the mastermind of the Watergate break-in, let alone that he held his hand over a flame. So the last memory from Liddy is that be made some of us feel old(er)!

Power Of UW-Madison Vote In Dane County For Biden Makes National News

Dane County can break a Republican campaign if voters are determined and motivated to make a difference. That is precisely what happened in November when a concerted effort was made to get as many Democratic voters to the polls as possible. With phone calls and over-the-fence conversations, from social media to the woman who drove up and down our neighborhood with a bubble machine pumping forth fun while urging voters to get out and cast a ballot–it all added up.

Wow, how it added up.

But it was the young voters at the UW-Madison, like other counties in Michigan and Pennsylvania with a powerful higher-education beacon, that allowed for swing states to line up for Joe Biden. Today The Wall Street Journal called attention to the power of these voters, noting that when compared to 2016 this demographic came out in higher numbers. It would have been hard not to show up this year given the bizarre and dangerous behavior that has been constantly exhibited by Donald Trump. As the newspaper reported young voters backed Biden nationally by 61% to 36%, according to AP Votecast.

College towns opened up the win for Biden in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Younger voters were energized by the year’s dialogue over racism and police practices. The slurs used by Trump about this transformative time in the nation did not fall on receptive ears in college cities. In fact, it propelled them further to the Democratic ticket. When Trump used scare tactics in the campaign to foster more resentments among older white voters, college students knew they had to cast a ballot for a more reasoned approach to our future dealings with racism.

It needs to be noted in Dane County the number of additional votes for this year’s Democratic ticket was higher, when compared with 2016, that it resulted in a higher number than the margin of victory Biden had over Trump in the whole state.

Dane County delivered! UW-Madison proved even in a tough school year they know our country comes before pretending that the work of the citizenry can be carried by others. When Dane County wishes to, we can send Republicans packing their bags!

In the case of Donald Trump, his diaper bag.

And so it goes.

Deep Concerns About COVID Spread During UW-Madison Football Weekends

The front page of Friday’s Wisconsin State Journal underscores the angst and concern that is building within Madison about the potential spread of COVID-19 once university football games begin in October. The growing list of public voices being registered about the real likelihood of additional caseloads in our city and across Dane County resulting from parties and football gatherings is suspected to increase in volume. As it should, given the consequences to our public health. At the same time we need to be honest about the lessons the football players need to learn about this moment in time.

Two city council members registered their dismay along with questions about the proposed games, and in so doing have made it clear this needed discussion and will continue.

District 5 Alder Shiva Bidar and I have raised questions about Badger home football games and the potential impact on nearby neighborhoods. These questions are being posed to UW-Madison and the Chancellor’s office, as well as to Public Health and the Mayor’s office. We want to know if fans will be allowed to attend and how many home games would be played.  We are concerned about possible beer gardens and tailgating, the congregate activity that could occur along Regent and Breese, and the blow

The new cases that are being reported across the state are reaching the highest levels yet, and the reason for this stems from the caseloads being reported at college campuses. UW-Madison has a growing problem which even required quarantining two dorm buildings, and yet the administration voted to start football in late October. Just at the time, it needs to be noted when health professionals are concerned with not only COVID-19 but also when the flu season will start to tick upwards. As was noted in an editorial cartoon within today’s paper, sadly, that makes for the perfect storm.

Former Madison city Council member Brenda Konkle has been steadfast in her reporting and amassing of data to show the pitfalls that Dane County is experiencing in combatting the virus. She placed the following graphic on her page this week. No one can be pleased with the steep direction of the caseloads.

It is most disheartening to ponder how the football program at UW-Madison cannot comprehend the moment in which the state now finds itself. Everybody is doing less than they did a year ago, staying at home more than they wish, and restricting themselves not only for their own health but for the greater good. I find it hard to imagine how the coaches and administrators of the sports program cannot instill within those fine young men who we hear so much about the need at times to act for the greater good. That needs to be the priority. It is that lesson that would be much more important for these student athletes to now learn as they move forward with their adult life.

Make no mistake that city and county officials have every right to demand accountability from the university. They also have a right to demand that those who wish to participate in game day activities do so in a restrained, manageable, and public health oriented manner. If they cannot abide they must be ticketed. The gravity of the situation is too great to allow for the greed from those who wish to pursue football games to endanger us all.

Madison’s Football Quandary: Self-Interest Or Public Interest?

There are clear tests being presented where an over-riding question is posed to the people, and the answer will reveal much about who we are at this point in time. Be it the presidential election or the soon to be played college football games, the question in both cases comes down to what is the character of the people, and how do we define ourselves?

It comes as no surprise to readers of Caffeinated Politics that from a public health perspective I oppose the decision by the Big Ten to start playing football in mid-October. The concern registered by medical professionals and our local Madison leaders all demonstrate why the relaxation by university officials is a most misguided one.

But now that the decision has been made there comes another hurdle to cross, namely how to curtail the football fans who think gathering in huge numbers and drinking is the only way to act on game day? I will let the words from a local news story featuring Samuel Brown, vice president of Rocky Rococo to place this matter into context. For the record I want to note that he is concerned about reopening his tailgate spot for football fans in the midst of a pandemic. 

“It’s almost overwhelming to think about how you would conduct a tailgate,” said Brown. 

Brown finds himself in a tough position as his businesses, like many others, could really use the revenue boost of hosting a tailgate for fans as COVID-19 continues to interrupt sales.

“On one hand if fans don’t show up, we lose out on the revenue and on the flip side, if they do show up, we have a lot of health concerns to worry about,” he said.

On the public health side of the equation comes the dread and concern form the likes of UW Health Chief Medical Officer Dr. Jeff Pothof. He knows the very real likely outcome from huge tailgating events and the way drunken fans will act, thereby surely increasing the number of COVID-19 cases.

“COVID-19 is going to spread like wildfire through tailgating parties,” said Pothof.

Instead of packing tailgating lots and watching the game with family and friends, Pothof is advising residents to stay home and to avoid tailgates, along with bars and restaurants.

We will see this fall if science and data are a stronger pull on people than the urge to pretend all is normal during a pandemic, We will see if swigging and guzzling beer with football frenzy in the air is more important than caring for the health of our larger community.

And with the answer to that question we will know better how history will define not this moment, but rather define us in that moment of our national story. We know from the lessons of childhood, most taught by parents, that character tests are not easy. Wrangling with ethical answers means we dig deep and look within to see if the  self-interest or public interest is the real winner.

Readers to this site know a couple weeks ago I wrote about Calvin Coolidge and how he would have been a better-suited presidential visitor to Kenosha than what took place this summer. So with the conclusion to this post I submit a quote from Coolidge that resonates with where I stand on this public health matter and the role we play at this time.

Character is the only secure foundation of the state.”

UW-Madison Students Need To Act Like Adults

Like many others in Madison, and across Dane County, I called for the UW-Madison to conduct only virtual classes this fall. While I love the bustle of the city when filled with students, enjoy the energy of an election season on campus, and learn from the speakers who make appearances there is also the fact we are in a national pandemic. The health of the staff, students, and the city in which we live are of prime importance.

There have been some moves by the university administration to stem the spread of the virus but when the facts are looked at, as reported in the Wisconsin State Journal, they show why it resembles more a slice of Swiss Cheese than anything the residents of this city can find comfort in when reading.

While university testing data show more than double the number of cases came from students who live off-campus compared to those in dorms over the past week, Blank said the latest numbers also show a sharp increase in cases at two residence halls.

While the goal is to bring case numbers down with this quarantine, pausing face-to-face courses would likely not make much of a dent. Blank acknowledged that contact-tracing hasn’t revealed evidence of transmission in the classroom. Still, out of an abundance of caution, she ordered an end to in-person classes through at least Sept. 25.

With the off-campus students being responsible for a large swath of the positive cases and 46 separate outbreaks linked to the UW, and Public Health Madison reporting that at least 74% of the new COVID-19 cases since September 1 have come from the UW all underscores one troubling central fact. Too many of the students who have the aptitude to take classes at the UW do not have the adult skills required to be on campus.

As part of the attempt to curb the outbreak on campus two of the largest dorms are quarantined for two weeks. One might hope a lesson would be learned from this action. But I am dubious.

Being in college is not just about tasting freedom for the first time as an adult. Drinking and partying may be fun, but when it runs counter to the needs of the greater community during a pandemic a price needs to be paid. In other words, act like adults, and then you will be treated as such. Otherwise you will be treated as children.

There is a big dose of responsibility that comes with being an adult. True, most college experiences push off that realization for several years, but this is a most unique and challenging time in our nation. It requires prioritizing one’s life. Either adapt to the new norms in this pandemic or lose your adult privileges.

And so it goes.

Gore Vidal’s Papers Had Been Housed At UW-Madison

I came across a most intriguing nugget today.  The New Yorker had a short piece on the burial of the ashes of Gore Vidal and within the story, I read the following.

Not long after Kaplan finished the book, Vidal moved his papers (almost four hundred boxes’ worth) from the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Film and Theater Research to Harvard University. Months before he died, at the age of eighty-six, he added a codicil to his will, leaving his entire thirty-seven-million-dollar estate to Harvard, which triggered a blizzard of lawsuits after his death and delayed his burial for years.

I do not recall this UW event in 2002 but it does seem to beg the question that happened that created such a ‘disruption in the force’ that the letters and insight between Vidal and notables such as Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, and Upton Sinclair would be moved?

I can find no better answer than the one offered in Harvard Magazine. 

 (The papers had resided since the 1950s at the University of Wisconsin, but Vidal, dissatisfied with Wisconsin’s stewardship, removed them to Houghton at the recommendation of his friend David Herbert Donald, Warren professor of American history emeritus, who met Vidal when asked to review his 1984 novel Lincoln for historical accuracy.) 

The fiery nature of Vidal surely accounts for some of the reasons for the loss of the papers to Harvard.  But UW-Madison must have known he was one who needed to be handled and managed more diplomatically.  Clearly, that did not happen.




Tommy Thompson Shows Leadership Skills, UW-System Requests Solid Ideas

When Tommy Thompson was named the UW System’s interim president there was statewide applause, from all points of the political compass, and all sectors of the state economy.  There was not only optimism about his selection but a deep conviction that Wisconsin’s senior statesman was the person with the skills and steady hands that could guide the UW-System through these most challenging times.

With clarity of purpose and a determination to work in a timely fashion Thompson is doing what we all trusted would be his mission at this new job.

Thursday Thompson will push for the Board of Regents to support a 3.5% increase to its 2021-23 state budget.  With new ideas to buttress the UW-System at this time of pandemic and economic pain, Thompson is pushing the envelope to make clear to all state residents the importance of higher education.  Using his political skills he is connecting with parents hard-hit during this time of financial upheaval by proposing a statewide free tuition scholarship program for some Wisconsin students.

Too often we see would-be leaders acting with timidity and couching behind studies and commissions in order to stall decision making.  Too often others fall to the threadbare language of budget cuts and not being able to act as the revenue stream does not seem able to match the needs of the time.

Thompson has proudly taken a different stance. One that we all can be proud of and support. A reader of the Wisconsin State journal could almost hear his determined tone and confidence when reading this quote.

“I want to be able to convince the legislators that the University of Wisconsin has been a punching bag for too long,” he said. “We’re not going to apologize anymore. We’re going out to tell our story.”

Over and over we see all sorts of men and women in our state and across the nation strive to be leaders, and though they exert energy and hope many never attain it.  In part, that is due to not being willing to act as Thompson did by going “big and bold”.

“This is a big, bold, aggressive budget that I think is going to meet the needs of our time,” he told reporters Tuesday in a video news conference. “If you were looking at a way to grow yourself out of a financial dilemma, wouldn’t you go to an area that’s going to give you the biggest return possible? … Who’s a better job creator than the University of Wisconsin?”

For too long there have been some in the state legislature who have delighted in sending out the wrong messages about higher education in this state.  There have been attempts to deny adequate funding for the UW and to divert attention instead to topics ranging from free speech to ‘political correctness.’

Thompson has made a clarion call that the topic for discussion now, and into the next budget cycle, will be the need to foster the growth engine of the state–the UW-System.  In so doing he is demonstrating–again–the role of a leader is to outline a problem facing our state and then finding ways to remedy it.

Thompson is proving to be the right person, for the right job, at the right time.