Photo by Michelle Stocker, The Capital Times

Wisconsin Republicans Tuesday announced plans for a center at UW-Madison named after former Gov. Tommy Thompson, whose tenure was highlighted at an all-day symposium at the Capitol. They said the center would foster research into public policy and bring speakers to System campuses from diverse viewpoints.

Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, has been pushing for more conservative voices on campus and has introduced legislation that would punish those who interrupt speakers at campus events.

But he told reporters after the announcement the center would not be a conservative think tank, but a bipartisan center. He also said it would provide balance to existing institutions on campus such as COWS, which says on its website it advocates “high road” solutions to social problems.

Still, the board that would oversee the center would be comprised of those associated with Thompson or the top legislative leaders, all of whom are Republicans.

“This is just going to make sure we have diversity of thought,” Vos said.

Dems raised concerns about the center, pointing out the Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs already exists on the Madison campus.

“Does anyone think spending $3 million on a separate conservative public affairs school is a good use of $?” Rep. Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, asked on Twitter.

But UW officials said the center has been in the works for two years and will embody Thompson’s belief in objective, non-partisan research to inform public policy, a belief public universities and their faculty have a role to play in public life, and that the university has a duty to ensure discoveries on campus benefit the state and beyond, a key piece of the Wisconsin Idea.

UW-Madison political scientist Ryan Owens said in an interview he originally pitched the idea to Thompson and started working with Vos when the speaker heard of the center’s development, which got unanimous approval in the campus’ political science department and the La Follette School of Public Affairs.

Owens, who worked in the Thompson administration for a year while in law school, praised the former guv’s approach to policymaking.

“He was sort of a unique political actor in his ability to reach out across the aisle and work with everybody,” he said. “And we just don’t see that across the country right now.”

Vos said the proposal calls for $3 million in general purpose revenue over the biennium. Along with funding the center on the Madison campus, the money would include $500,000 to help other campuses in the UW System bring in speakers.

The proposal calls for the creation of a seven-member board of directors, which would then hire a director to oversee day-to-day operations.

The board would be comprised of the president of Thompson’s family foundation, a former aide to the guv, and four members who would be nominated by the Assembly speaker and Senate majority leader.

Each lawmaker would submit the names of at least three people to the guv, who would select from each list for three-year terms.

The board would then hire the director, who also would serve on the body, which would provide direction for the center’s research.

Owens, the UW political scientist, says he’ll apply for the director position and hopefully will be “fortunate enough to get that.”

Madison is already home to the La Follette School of Public Affairs, a nationally ranked program that produces policy and management research while training students interested in government and non-profit work.

Owens said while there’s overlap between public affairs researchers and political scientists, they can sometimes approach issues with different methodological perspectives.

Bringing the two disciplines together in the center, he said, would ensure it has “some good, strong academics with various skills.”

Vos said the Thompson center would be focused not on training people interested in politics, but fostering research in issues such as welfare reform, which Thompson championed during his 14 years as guv.

Owens pushed back against possible concerns that the center would take direction from the Republican-appointed board, saying UW-Madison faculty “takes very, very seriously their academic and institutional integrity” and that the center would also have an internal advisory committee made up of faculty to weigh in on its direction.

“We’re going to hear all kinds of voices. We’re going to pay attention to all kinds of things. … It will be something that people will sit back and watch it and say, ‘This is a good center. It does good things and we’re proud of what it’s doing,'” Owens said.

Gov. Scott Walker and several lawmakers who attended the announcement told personal stories of Thompson, who was guv from 1987 until his resignation in 2001 to become Health and Human Services secretary.

Vos recalled interviewing with Thompson in 1989 to become a student representative on the UW Board of Regents.

“Governor Thompson just kept asking a simple question throughout our interview: ‘Do you love the university system?’ and I said ‘Yes,'” Vos recalled. “‘Well how much do you love the university system?’ “I love it a lot, governor.”

Two welfare experts at the event looking at the former governor’s impact touted Thompson’s past initiatives, saying the state is “still following” the path on welfare the former guv laid out two decades ago.

“We are building off of what Tommy put in place,” Department of Children and Families Secretary Eloise Anderson told the [email protected] symposium that looked at Thompson’s approach to welfare, schools and more during his 14-year stint as governor.

Thompson has previously said that Walker’s “Wisconsin Works for Everyone” welfare plan, which includes expanding work requirements under the state’s food stamps program to able-bodied adults with school-age children as well as those receiving housing assistance, was an extension of the welfare reforms he made during his time in office.

Both Anderson and Jennifer Noyes, a researcher at the UW-Madison Institute for Research on Poverty and welfare policy expert, emphasized the shift that Thompson’s Wisconsin Works, or W-2, program represented.

“It was a fundamental shift of philosophy and policy … that you shouldn’t be better off on welfare than you were working, so that stream went through all the policies that were developed,” Noyes said.

She also pointed to the other investments and programs within W-2, including work support, transportation assistance and child care, among other things, all to support the concept of “making work pay.”

Meanwhile, Anderson said one hurdle in the fight for welfare reform was getting the public “to understand women could work.”

“That to me was a big issue, that whole notion that single mothers could take on a job and make it work. And it was OK, and it was safe,” she said.

The two also stressed the need to “get fathers back in homes” as an issue that was flagged under Thompson’s leadership, but still persists today.

“We wouldn’t have so many poor families if we had intact families,” Anderson said, adding that changes still need to be made in the welfare system “so it didn’t drive fathers out,” meaning trying to support two-parent families rather than only emphasizing single-parent ones.

And Noyes said moving forward, leaders have to keep in mind the people who are working but not yet self sufficient.

“We have to continue thinking about how to continue to make work work,” she said.

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