MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Gov. Scott Walker and fellow Wisconsin Republicans on Tuesday announced the formation of a new public policy center at the state’s flagship university, which liberals said would be nothing more than a taxpayer-funded conservative think tank.
The announcement about the new Tommy G. Thompson Center on Public Leadership comes as one of the architects of the deal, Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, is pushing a bill that would punish students who disrupt free speech on college campuses.
“Far too often, we feel like there’s only one legitimate viewpoint on campus,” Vos said. “This is just going to ensure we have diversity of thought. … It’s not a conservative think tank. Hopefully it will be able to offset some of the liberal thinking.”
Vos and other backers of the new center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison promised that it will serve as a bridge between the academic and political worlds and bring in speakers to campuses across the state.
Vos said the new center will have no agenda and will be dedicated to “maximum free speech.” He later said the center would not be partisan but would counter what he said were “left-of-center leaning” research organizations on the Madison campus.
The announcement comes as free speech issues have grown more contentious on college campuses across the country. Republicans are worried that conservative speakers don’t get equal treatment, while some students have criticized invitations extended to speakers who they believe engage in hate-speech.
The new Thompson Center, which must be approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature, would be run by a director overseen by a seven-member board within the university’s political science department and the La Follette School of Public Affairs.
UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank joined Walker and Republican legislative leaders in praising the creation of the new center, which is slated to start next year. She said the center would build closer ties with the university’s researchers and state policymakers.
Blank said the center will embody the three principles of Thompson, the former 14-year Republican governor for which it is named. She said those are a belief in the value of objective, nonpartisan research to inform public policy; a belief that public universities and their faculties have a central role in public life; and a belief in the Wisconsin Idea — the dedication to ensuring that discoveries and knowledge on college campuses are spread across the state and beyond.
“Just as he did during his time as governor, the Tommy G. Thompson Center is going to be dedicated to bringing people together,” Blank said.
The center’s creation also won praise from Badger Advocates, a private group that advocates for the Madison campus. The group’s director, Matt Kussow, called it “yet another bond between our great state and our great state university.”
It would be funded with $3 million in taxpayer money over the next two years along with unspecified private donations.
Democratic Rep. Gordon Hintz, who sits on the Legislature’s budget committee, said he suspects that university leaders don’t want to criticize creation of the center because it could put their funding from the Republican-controlled Legislature at risk.
“Does anyone think spending $3 million on a separate conservative public affairs school is a good use of $?” Hintz tweeted.
Scot Ross, director of the liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now, accused Vos of “bullying students, faculty and administrators” by creating a conservative think tank to spread “Republican propaganda as widespread on campuses as possible.”
“There is no doubt right-wing foundations, corporations and millionaire Republicans will finance what taxpayers don’t get stuck paying,” Ross said.
Follow Scott Bauer on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sbauerAP