By SCOTT BAUER
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — University of Wisconsin System interim president Tommy Thompson said Thursday that he has requested $110 million from Democratic Gov. Tony Evers to pay for COVID-19 tests, contact tracing and personal protective equipment so campuses can safely reopen this fall amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Thompson, the former Republican governor, vowed in his first meeting with the Board of Regents to reopen UW campuses in a way that’s safe for students, faculty, staff and the surrounding communities.
“We are committed to providing an in-person UW education this fall,” he said. Thompson attended the board meeting in person, wearing a mask, while many of the regents dialed in remotely.
Thompson took over as interim president this month. It’s a precarious time as campuses struggle with deep budget holes caused by the coronavirus pandemic and complicated decisions about how — or even whether — to reopen campuses.
“I know a lot of students like me from small communities … really would like to come back to campus,” Thompson told reporters before the meeting. “I keep hearing from parents, I keep hearing from students, the importance of an in-person education.”
Thompson said a safe reopening plan will include requiring everyone to wear masks indoors at every UW campus and outside when they can’t keep a safe distance.
The current UW-Madison plan is for students to return in the fall to a mix of online and in-person classes. Other campuses across the UW System have similar plans.
Thompson said he met with Evers at the governor’s mansion for more than an hour. Evers’ spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff did not immediately return a message asking about Thompson’s funding request.
Thompson said he’s also met repeatedly with the UW campus chancellor, provosts, faculty, and state Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, with whom he says he has a “great friendship.” Thompson said he wanted to forge a better relationship between the university and the Republican-controlled Legislature.
“I want to make sure that we develop much more civility between both ends of State Street,” he said, referring to the street in Madison that connects the Capitol with the campus.
He said he has also met with U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, about securing federal funding to back plans to safely reopen campuses in the fall.
The 78-year-old Thompson served as governor from 1987 to 2001 before leaving to be Health and Human Services secretary for four years under President George W. Bush.
Thompson was chosen to lead the UW System after the lone finalist for the job, then-University of Alaska President Jim Johnson, withdrew from consideration. Ray Cross, who retired July 1 as UW president, is remaining for 90 days as an adviser.
Cross has called for campuses to consolidate their programs to help address expected budget cuts due to the pandemic, and said university employees should brace for layoffs.
Thompson said he was reviewing that plan and would formulate his own proposal.
The university’s budget is already under the strain of a tuition freeze that has been in place since 2013 and a drop in state aid of 6% since 2007. More aid cuts are anticipated as the state budget faces a massive hit due to a loss of tax revenue caused by the pandemic.
The flagship UW-Madison campus alone expects to lose at least $100 million through the summer.
Thompson expressed confidence that the university wouldn’t be adversely affected by new rules issued by President Donald Trump’s administration this week that would force international students to transfer or leave the country if they aren’t taking at least one in-person class, a move designed to pressure campuses to open.
Some 8,800 international students account for about 5% of the System’s budget, between $30 million and $50 million, and losing them would be a “big hit,” Thompson said. UW will meet the requirements, even if an entire campus goes to online classes only, because system-wide there will be in-person classes offered, he said.
“We think we are outside of it,” Thompson said of the new rules. “Our lawyers agree.”