Photo by Michelle Stocker, The Capital Times

The professor who envisioned the Tommy G. Thompson Center on Public Leadership threatened at the last minute to drop out of the project over concerns the board overseeing it would have too much power, according to emails obtained by WisPolitics.com.

Among other things, UW-Madison officials and Ryan Owens, the political scientist who originally pitched the idea, asked Assembly Speaker Robin Vos to ensure the board, comprised largely of GOP appointees, wouldn’t have final say over the center’s budget.

Owens emailed Vos’ office a day before the center was announced saying he “can’t be a part of” the center if that issue wasn’t resolved, the records show.

“It is unfortunate that we could not come to a compromise on this,” he wrote on May 22. “Perhaps a future endeavor will be more fruitful.”

But Owens got back on board after talking to Vos’ office and UW-Madison and seeing a proposal from the Rochester Republican that addressed his main concern.

That episode and the emails show the last-minute changes behind the creation of the center and the early concerns Vos received over the center’s board. Ultimately, Republicans did not make changes to address some of the objections raised before adding the center to the budget.

The proposal came under fire this week from a UW-Madison faculty lobbying group, which says the board’s powers would put the center’s independence at risk, threatening the success that faculty had envisioned when they first came up with the proposal.

“This is a corporate-style board, not an academic-style board,” said Dave Vanness, the past president of the UW-Madison chapter of the American Association of University Professors.

Owens said a proposal he saw after he sent the email helped win him back over. Vos sent a request to the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee that would have the board approve the budget, but UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank would get the final say on it.

The day after the email, Owens and Blank joined Vos and other top Republicans, including Gov. Scott Walker, at the Capitol to announce the center, part of a day-long celebration of Thompson’s legacy at the state and federal level.

The Joint Finance Committee then passed the motion approving the center — but did not include the provision giving the chancellor the authority to approve its budget.

JFC member Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam, who led the motion on funding for UW and the center, through a spokesman did not address why Republicans opted against putting that language into the motion. The spokesman said Born looks forward to the center being established and that the proposal “was developed and agreed upon with the university.”

UW-Madison spokeswoman Meredith McGlone declined to comment on the change from Joint Finance but said the current language is “workable.”

Vos spokeswoman Kit Beyer didn’t address questions on why the structure GOP lawmakers approved is better than what faculty are calling for.

“The development of the center was a collaborative effort with the university,” she said. “We are confident that the individuals submitted to be on the board would reflect the same bipartisan spirit and drive to find solutions as the center’s namesake. And, we look forward to honoring Wisconsin’s longest serving governor through the Tommy G. Thompson Center.”

Owens, meanwhile, said in an interview he’s trying to “dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t'” to ensure the center he’s worked on for two years happens. Owens, who worked in Thompson’s legal office for a year while in law school, said he and other faculty working on the project will strive internally to add protections guarding against what his colleagues worry about.

“I just want to get running with things and showcase how good the center can be,” Owens said.

See the full story in the June 30 REPORT.

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