'Let me run the schools': UW System President will enact COVID-19 policies on campuses without lawmaker's approval

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MADISON Wis. (CBS 58) -- UW System President Tommy Thompson said campuses will go forth with their COVID-19 policies for the upcoming school year despite a Republican-led committee voting to block university officials from enforcing masking, testing and vaccine requirements.

President Thompson said he won't comply with a request from a powerful Republican controlled committee to submit COVID-19 policies before enacting them on campuses in effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

"Let me run the schools," said Thompson. "We have the statutory authority as well as the administrative rules authority to open up and have a safe place for our students and faculty. And I intend to do that."

Earlier this month, Republicans who serve on the Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules (JCRAR) passed a motion they claim would require the UW Board of Regents to get legislative approval first before issuing any COVID-19 policies such as mask requirements and weekly testing for unvaccinated students. 

The effort introduced State Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater), who co-chairs the committee, said the motion is not about masks or testing requirements, but instead to allow people to make their own health decisions.

"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," Nass said in a statement. "This fight is really about the desire of multiple chancellors to dictate every student, employee and campus visitor be vaccinated for Covid-19 or be banished from their campuses."

A majority of UW campuses will require masks indoors and unvaccinated students will have to undergo weekly testing, but university officials have not mandated vaccinations. Instead they are relying on the "70 for 70 pledge", a program that allows vaccinated students to become eligible for a $7,000 scholarship once their campus reaches 70% vaccination rate.

As COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations continue to surge across the state, Thompson said, Senator Nass was "wrong" to interfere with the UW Systems ability to keep students and faculty safe.

"Can you imagine if I had to start putting administrative rules on everything and having the legislature overrule me on my decisions?" said Thompson. "How would we ever run the university?"

Legal Fight Brewing

The decision to ignore JCRAR's motion could result in Republican lawmakers suing the UW Board of Regents.

Nass asked GOP leaders, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, to take legal action to "force the UW System to comply with state law."

If that were to happen, Thompson said, he's confident he would win in court.

"I don't want to fight with (the Legislature), but if they want to fight with me, so be it," said Thompson. "Bring it on."

He added, "If they sue us, will fight it… I'm confident we will win."

 

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