Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Student winding up service on university Board of Regents

Colleene Thomas has a lot of context for her classroom learning at the La Follette School. The first-year Master of Public Affairs student is nearing the end of her two-year term on the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents.

Colleene Thomas before a microphone

Colleene Thomas makes a point during a University of Wisconsin Board of Regents meeting.

Thomas' commitment to public service includes involvement with student government at the Madison campus and work with a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. She is furthering her commitment through her course work at the La Follette School. "The degree will grant me a valuable set of tools that will enable me to pursue a career in public service," Thomas says.

She finds that her public management course resonates with her service on the public body that governs the University of Wisconsin System's 26 campuses. The course, taught by adjunct associate professor Paul Soglin, a former mayor of Madison, covers many of the issues she encounters at the Regents meetings, which occur around the state eight times a year for one or two days. "The course covers the theory and concepts needed to manage large systems, from budgets to personnel management," Thomas says. "Professor Soglin's course has helped me to contextualize the management practices and planning I've been exposed to while serving on the Board."

Thomas also brings her regents experience into her coursework: For a project in the public management course, she interviewed the System's associate vice president for capital planning and budget to learn more about the processes he oversees.

For five summers, she has worked for U.S. Representative Jim Oberstar, who represents the area around Duluth in northeastern Minnesota, just a few miles from Poplar, Wisconsin, where Thomas' family now lives. (She grew up in Menomonie and represents rural Wisconsin on the Board of Regents.) For Oberstar, Thomas handles constituent relations and media analysis. She staffs meetings and accompanies the congressman to events. She often helps constituents resolve immigration and Social Security issues, which has given her a good grounding in the federal bureaucracy and how it functions. "This position has shown me that members of Congress can make a real difference to average people," she says. "Looking forward, I'd like to learn more about how policy is established, and perhaps be part of creating policy that will improve the lives of those same people who I work with during the summer."

While working on her bachelor's degree at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Thomas served on the student government's shared governance committee, through which the Associated Students of Madison appoints students to sit on university committees. Thomas herself served on four panels that covered issues related to curriculum and staff and student diversity.

As one of two student representatives on the Board of Regents, Thomas often finds she, the other student and outgoing state Superintendent of Public Instruction Elizabeth Burmaster are the regents who consistently vote against tuition increases.

"While tuition hikes are a reality and necessity in the current budget climate, we must acknowledge that they will cause some smart, dedicated Wisconsin students to be priced out of their dreams," Thomas says. "Yet a simple tuition freeze is not a responsible option in the current budget situation. I'm convinced that we need to target our financial aid policies to help more students with unmet need. This would prevent cuts to teaching and services that could really harm the quality of UW degrees, and it would improve access for worthy students who need a little help to access the future they want."

Thomas gave voice to these concerns in September 2007 when she drafted a letter signed by student leaders from across the University of Wisconsin System to encourage legislators to pass a budget favorable to the state universities. "That letter ended up sounding a clear, collective message and helped students across the state engage in the decision-making process," Thomas says.

Thomas is not the first person affiliated with the La Follette School to bring public affairs expertise to bear on the Board of Regents. Tom Loftus, who graduated in 1972 from the school's precursor, the Center for the Study of Public Policy and Administration, is a current regent. He served in the Wisconsin Legislature from 1977 to 1991 and was speaker of the Assembly for eight years. He was the U.S. ambassador to Norway from 1993 to 1997, then worked with the World Health Organization from 1998 to 2005

"I always try to sit next to Tom at the Regents meetings," Thomas says. "I catch him up on what is going on at the La Follette School, and he gives me advice about which classes would be useful for a career in public service."