Following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, then-Secretary Tommy Thompson and his staff at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services established an operations center near his office to better coordinate responses to emergency crises.

They connected the “war room” to international agencies and every HHS division, implemented videoconferencing and paid for a command center at the World Health Organization, Thompson wrote in his 2018 memoir, “Tommy: My Journey of a Lifetime.” The center was named for him: “I don’t know if my name survived the Obama administration, but I am sure his team was grateful to have it,” Thompson wrote.

Over the summer, shortly after taking over as interim president of the University of Wisconsin System, Thompson brought that idea to the 19th floor of UW-Madison’s Van Hise Hall. Every morning at 9:30 a.m., he holds an operations meeting with officials across the state to discuss COVID-19 testing, reopening plans and vaccine distribution at the System’s 13 universities and 26 campuses.

“It’s one of the reasons we’ve been so successful,” Thompson said. “Every day we meet and go over the data.”

At the operations meeting on Jan. 12, six members of his team sat socially distanced in a room with a sprawling view of Madison’s isthmus, sharing updates with 10 others via videoconference. Though straightforward and routine, the briefing was an example of Thompson’s hands-on management style and vast connections in the public health world.

Jo Carter, the System’s project portfolio manager, began the briefing with daily test numbers. On other days, the team has invited guests ranging from chancellors to national representatives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Thompson, 79, started in his role July 1. After former President Ray Cross announced his retirement in October, a failed search for his replacement left the System without a top executive and bred distrust of System leadership. Critics said the search committee’s size and makeup eschewed shared governance input, and the lone finalist withdrew following widespread opposition to his background and qualifications.

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