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We met two decades ago — a Republican governor from the small town of Elroy, Wisconsin, and a Democrat University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of biochemistry from New York.

Tommy Thompson


Michael Sussman


It might have first appeared we had little in common, but we bonded over the Wisconsin Idea – the belief that the wealth of knowledge and research at the University of Wisconsin should be utilized to improve people’s lives across the state.

Now we’re joining together again to support a new Wisconsin Idea, one that builds on our state’s great history while addressing specific 21st century challenges.

Wisconsin is where the concepts of unemployment and workers compensation were first developed, along with Medicaid and Social Security. It’s where scientists discovered that vitamin D foods cure rickets and that warfarin prevents blood clotting. Campus research developed into constructive public policy and beneficial products – cooperation in the name of progress.

Twenty years ago, after an introduction by then-Chancellor John Wiley, we worked together to address a lack of faculty and lab space in the biosciences at UW-Madison. The result — with abundant help from many colleagues in both the political and academic arenas — was the $317 million BioStar Initiative, which included an addition to the Biotechnology Center as well as renovations and additional buildings for biology-related departments.

It was great for the university, and great for the state of Wisconsin.

Two decades on, however, we look around our state and find ourselves at a crossroads. Wisconsin’s population is growing older. Enrollment in the UW System campuses is declining. New jobs demand technology skills many of our people don’t have.

There is a recognition of the problem — but little cohesion in finding solutions.

We need to think big, and have the courage to live up to our potential.

Today’s new Wisconsin Idea is all about how we can position our state to once again be a leader — in economic development, in innovation, in protecting our environment, and in graduating students who can make it happen.

We must also recognize that we all own this challenge. Let’s consider some components of the new Wisconsin Idea.

The new Wisconsin Idea must begin by re-examining how we engage with each other — our universities with industry and industry with our universities. We must meet and talk and plan to address each other’s needs. Addressing an aging workforce as well as graduates leaving our state requires collaborative conversations that generate joint solutions. We should jointly discuss if we are matching resources to address employment needs and business growth while also sustaining the exceptional research and educational environment our universities are known worldwide for producing. Not unlike the Wisconsin Idea, the means, frequency and quality of our engagement and joint solution building must be re-examined and retooled for the next generation of mutual success.

We have areas of tremendous expertise and excellence. Several of our four-year universities should be turned into specialized centers of excellence for Wisconsin. UW-River Falls for agriculture, for example, UW-Stevens Point for natural resources, and UW-La Crosse for health sciences. If we put in the resources, they could become specialty schools for the nation.

There is potential for a powerful alignment between Madison and Milwaukee, combining research prowess and economic power. In the manner of the research triangle in North Carolina, it could attract economic development that would benefit an entire region, as well as the rest of the state.

The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, which patents, licenses and commercializes innovations from our university inventors, should draw on its expertise and share its knowledge in entrepreneurialism and how it positively affects economic development.

We need to make innovation a priority. The scientist’s job is to winnow and sift, without any trepidation, revealing scientific truths and teasing the secrets out of nature. In biology, for example, we are thinking boldly by trying to develop a method that will tell us which protein has had its three-dimensional structure changed when a cell becomes cancerous or is treated with a drug. That has never been achieved before, and would allow labs all over the world to make important new discoveries and hasten drug discovery for disease treatments and cures.

Finally, we need to make sure everyone knows what happens when Wisconsin thinks big. We propose having a series of economic summits around the state, to generate enthusiasm and excitement about the work coming out of our universities from Platteville to Superior.

We know this can work in Wisconsin because it has worked in Wisconsin. The opportunity is there, we need only embrace it. Now there’s an idea.

Tommy Thompson’s list of accomplishments as governor included the construction of $2 billion worth of buildings across the UW System. Michael Sussman, UW professor of biochemistry, helped launch a successful technology startup company and regularly addresses groups on the importance of university outreach across the state. This commentary is part of a series of articles organized by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. For more than 90 years WARF has promoted innovation through advancement of University research discoveries to the market and reinvestment in research at UW-Madison. Comments are encouraged at See for more details.


(4) comments


I like what these two men are saying. I would also like to stress that our university system needs to stress that it is accessible to all children in the state -- including two vitally important provisos: First, it needs to be affordable to all citizens of the state so that it cannot exclude children from impoverished families. Second, it needs to encourage children leaving high school without stellar academic records to try out their schools -- if nothing else, by allowing them to first develop their academic skills and prove their abilities in state-sponsored junior colleges. I had neither the money or the academic credentials for college when I started my ultimately successful college career as a freshman at La Crosse more than 55 years ago. It made all the difference in the world for my life, and I am eternally grateful for the chance it gave me.


Kingman and Areaman, you are spot-on. Tommy is living in la-la land. Tommy forgot where he came from after he left to be GW's HHS. He came home corrupted and chose to capitalize off service member's with Don Weber and started Logistics Health. They grew it with questionably obtained government contracts for active service members of Reservists or NG being mobilized, then demobilized. Thompson exploited his D.C. connections to build his and Weber's little empire, then sold it for millions, while La Crosse taxpayers where double-whammied giving TIF money to do it. Yep, a great WI idea.

Area Man

The "Wisconsin Idea" was originally articulated by Governor Robert La Follette and UW President Charles Van Hise over 100 years ago. It was powerful and brilliant, representing the notion that university research should be applied to solve problems and improve quality of life and the environment for all citizens. Adlai Stevenson later praised the Wisconsin Idea, stating that it meant a deep conviction that the role of government was "not to stumble along like a drunkard in the dark, but to light its way by the best torches of knowledge." Does anyone remember how our current myopic and pro-big business Governor tried, in 2015, to get the Wisconsin Idea removed from the UW mission statement?


Tommy fails to realize that today's republican party scoffs at science. It ridicules scientists whose findings they don't like. That is the new Wisconsin Idea thanks to the tea baggers in Madison. After all anyone can be an expert on any subject now thanks to a few videos on the internet and the birth of alt. media. Who needs education with all that at your fingertips. The new WI idea is to pick on the poor and desperate and slash funding for public education while transferring money to private schools. Except during an election year, then make it seem like you are increasing funding. The new Wi idea is to cater to the very rich, to huge foreign corporations, pollute and rape our natural resources, and gerrymandering so politicians won't be held accountable. Mr. Thompson needs to get with the times.

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