‘Get out of my way’: Tommy Thompson says UW won’t submit COVID-19 safety policies to lawmakers for approval

UW System interim president Tommy Thompson said Tuesday he is prepared for lawsuits, doesn't need 'political approval' from legislature to keep campuses safely open

MADISON, Wis. — The University of Wisconsin System’s interim president Tommy Thompson said Tuesday that UW would not be submitting COVID-19 safety policies to a Republican-controlled legislative committee, adding that the system was prepared to go to court to keep campuses safely open this fall.

Republican leaders have said they’ll be filing a lawsuit in an attempt to force UW and the former Republican governor to comply.

“The contention that the University does not have this authority is not only wrong, but also incredibly problematic as we bring students back to campus,” Thompson said in a release, the former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Service under President George W. Bush. “The UW System is not required to seek political approval for every internal management decision, nor should it.”

Three weeks ago, a Republican-controlled legislative committee ruled that UW’s 13 institutions and 26 campuses needed to submit all COVID-19 safety policies to them within one month, as part of the rule-making process. That means campuses have until September 2, the first day of classes, to submit any mandates to the committee for approval–a decision that Thompson contends does not follow state law.

RELATED: UW System will need lawmakers’ approval to put Covid-19 mandates in place this fall

“I’m not a virgin to litigation whatsoever. If they want to sue me, fine. We will answer it. We will be in circuit court, we’ll be in supreme court, we’ll be in federal court: wherever they want to go,” President Thompson said on a press call with reporters. “I think they’re gonna lose; I think they’re gonna waste their time.”

In a statement, Senator Steve Nass (R-Whitewater), who co-chairs the Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules, said he’ll be asking Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate majority leader Devin LeMahieu to file a lawsuit after the rule deadline expires on September 2, forcing UW to comply.

“It is not surprising that the Ivory Tower administrators at the UW System are openly defying state law to issue Covid-19 mandates to control every adult that dares to walk on their campuses with the notable exception of 70,000 plus ticket paying fans at football games in Madison,” Sen. Nass said in a statement.

“It is sad that Interim President Tommy Thompson has once again shown his belief in big government control over the rights of individuals to make their own health-related decisions.”

On Tuesday’s call, Thompson didn’t mince words directed at lawmakers, referencing a “successful year” in 2020 keeping campuses open.

“Let me do it again. Get out of my way.”

Current UW System safety requirements

Currently, all UW System campuses have some kind of mask requirement or expectation in place, with language varying based on campus. Last week, UW-Madison announced a COVID-19 weekly testing requirement on campus for unvaccinated staff and students, as well as those who are vaccinated but haven’t provided proof.

“We can expect to see a continued increase in positive cases, including some cases among vaccinated people, because the delta variant is more contagious than previous variants and some breakthrough is inevitable,” UW-Madison said in a press release at the time.

On August 3, the same day as the vote from the Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules, UW-Madison also announced a mask requirement for all staff and students for indoor campus buildings. The mandate includes exceptions for students in their own dorm rooms, staff when alone inside their own offices with doors closed, and while eating or drinking.

“The effort to block the UW System’s authority is both wrong on the law and wrong as a matter of public policy,” Thompson said. “Had this happened last academic year, the University might never have been able to set up community testing and vaccination sites, or even isolate sick students. It would have been a disaster. I have no plans to abdicate our responsibility.”

The legal foundation for Thompson’s decision, he said, lays in the state law that allows UW administrators broad powers to set policy for the system. The UW president answers to and is appointed by the Board of Regents, not the legislature; 16 of the 18 regents are appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the state Senate to staggered seven-year terms.

No UW vaccine requirement yet

Thompson has previously ruled out vaccine requirements for staff or students on the campus, a decision he said on Tuesday he was sticking to for now, but wasn’t ruling anything out if campuses see a Delta variant-related surge this fall.

Hundreds of colleges around the country are making vaccines a requirement. A database by the Chronicle of Higher Education finds 680 public and private colleges are requiring students to get the COVID-19 vaccine, according to a mid-August U.S. News report.

In Wisconsin, a handful of colleges have also announced vaccine requirements, including Beloit College, Marquette University, and Carthage College.

Correction: This article has been updated to correct an identification of UW System COVID-19 requirements.