Tommy Thompson (copy) (copy)

A UW-Madison research center named after former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson should be an academically rigorous and intellectually adventurous center for the study of politics and policy in Wisconsin.

Peter Thomson, La Crosse Tribune

Of course, Tommy Thompson deserves to be honored with a University of Wisconsin center that is named for him — and that explores his fascination with politics and the innovative policymaking that can and should extend from the electoral process.

But the center must not get bogged down in the petty politics of the moment.

Thompson, Wisconsin’s longest-serving governor, was elected as a conservative Republican. Yet he governed in the tradition of the state’s ablest Republican and Democratic governors: as an ideas-oriented problem-solver who borrowed from the left and right and who built the unlikeliest coalitions with the purpose of actually getting things done.

The Capital Times never endorsed Thompson for governor, despite his best efforts to secure the paper’s backing. But Thompson often won the paper’s support for his initiatives, and we respected his willingness to reach across lines of partisanship and ideology to tackle major challenges.

The proposed Tommy G. Thompson Center on Public Leadership on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus should recognize and embrace the Thompson approach to thinking and doing in a political context.

Unfortunately, the center has been mired in controversy because it has been poorly conceived and poorly presented by legislators who lack Thompson’s political and governing skills — and who seem more interested in telling academics and students what to do than in creating space for rigorous research and robust dialogues.

As such, these lesser politicians insult both the UW and Thompson.

To his immense credit, UW political scientist Ryan Owens, who had advocated for the Thompson Center, has pushed back against crude attempts by Republican legislators to dumb-down the center by giving authority over its budget to a board comprised of partisan appointees. And, in a hopeful sign, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has begun to show at least a measure of respect for the role that UW Chancellor Rebecca Blank and other academics must play if the center is to be a success.

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But the blundering approach of the speaker and his fellow partisans at key turns has inspired lingering real concerns about the independence and integrity of the project.

As they finish the budgeting process that will establish the Thompson Center, it is important for legislators to stop embarrassing themselves, the university and the state of Wisconsin with amateurish attempts to impose their political will on a nationally recognized institution of higher learning that for more than a century has operated on this premise: "Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe that the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found."

Tommy Thompson won the respect of Wisconsinites of all partisanships and ideologies by recognizing that he could learn from others, compromise with others and address daunting health care, transportation and social issues. He was a politician. But at his best (and Thompson was often at his best), the governor rejected hack politics in favor of common sense and the common good. The way to honor this man is with an academically rigorous and intellectually adventurous center for the study of politics and policy in Wisconsin.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising

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Associate Editor of the Cap Times