Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson was right at home Sunday, May 15, when he addressed the Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs’ Class of 2016 at the state Capitol. A two-time graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Thompson began his political career in the Wisconsin Assembly Chamber – the same room where 35 of the La Follette School’s 38 graduates received their diplomas.
“This is a truly great place,” said Thompson, who served in the Assembly for 20 years. “A place where great ideas and traditions have been able to come to the forefront, shaping not only our state but also our country.”
Calling himself a student of history, Thompson gave a brief lesson on the Assembly Chamber, including the large mural and Old Abe the War Eagle directly behind him. He noted that Mia DiLuzio (MIPA ’16) was sitting in the same chair he did more than three decades ago.
Throughout his political career and still today, Thompson said, he has been guided by the belief that good policy makes good politics. One of his signature pieces of legislation – the Wisconsin Academic Excellence scholarship program – reflects that belief.
“If anyone knows anything about me, I’m all about Wisconsin,” Thompson said. “I love this state. I love its institutions. I love its people, and I don’t like anybody to leave, especially to go to school.”
A tireless champion of UW-Madison, Thompson reflected on the century-old Wisconsin Idea – “the driving philosophy embraced by the University of Wisconsin System.” He called former UW President Charles Van Hise – the driving force behind the Wisconsin Idea – a man before his time and said the La Follette School’s namesake deserves some of the credit for the UW’s guiding principle.
“Perhaps no school within the UW System has a great obligation to embrace the Wisconsin Idea than the school from which you are graduating today,” he said. “The ability to identify a challenge, introduce your thoughts and ideas and change, participate in the healthy debate around such issues and create public policy for good consideration – this is the Wisconsin Idea.”
Faculty speaker Donald Moynihan said the Wisconsin Idea – as represented in state statute – does not use the term evidence-based policy or statistics. “It speaks to something more elemental, more permanent,” he said. “The search for truth.”
Moynihan, a professor of public affairs, cautioned that the search for truth may seem too lofty or too subjective, and the tension between evidence and politics may result in conflict.
Moynihan focused on the role of evidence in policymaking and governance and the tension between politics and evidence. “The difference between evidence and politics does not have to result in conflict; it can result in a fruitful friction, a dynamic tension,” Moynihan said.
“Good politicians understand values,” he said. “Statesmen, like Governor Thompson, are able to marry facts and values in a way that meaningfully improve the societies that they serve.”
Student speaker Alisha Bower (MPA) encouraged her classmates to take some deep breaths and reflect on their accomplishments. “With support from many of the friends and family that are here today, we survived stats, we conquered our capstones, and now we get to go out into the world and finally do the things that motivated us to enter this program.”
Bower, who is moving to Lima, Peru, for an internship with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, also reminded her classmates about the amazing toolkits they developed at the La Follette School.
“Now that we’ve assembled our toolkits, we are headed out into the world to be problem solvers in the name of the public interest,” she said. “We will work on policies or in organizations ... that improve health care and education, that protect the environment and promote economic prosperity, that create transparency and good governance, and some that do all of these things and more internationally.”
Falon French (MPA) and first-year student Karina Virrueta coordinated the graduation ceremony, which included music by Zou Zou Robidoux and first-year La Follette student Sophia Rogers.
Three students also were recognized for their work. Merrill Mechler-Hickson (MPA) received the Piore Prize for best paper in science and public policy, Demetri Vincze (MPA) received the Penniman Prize for most outstanding paper written by a graduating student, and Drew McDermott (MPA) received the Director’s Achievement Award for his outstanding academic record and evidence of being an outstanding public policy thinker and communicator.