History of the Wisconsin Idea

One of the longest and deepest traditions surrounding the University of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Idea signifies a general principle: that education should influence people’s lives beyond the boundaries of the classroom. Synonymous with Wisconsin for more than a century, this “Idea” has become the guiding philosophy of university outreach efforts in Wisconsin and throughout the world.

Photo: Charles Van Hise

Charles Van Hise

The genesis of the Wisconsin Idea is often attributed to former UW President Charles Van Hise, who in a 1904 speech declared, “I shall never be content until the beneficent influence of the University reaches every home in the state.” As president from 1903 to 1918, Van Hise saw that vision carried out by creating the university’s extension division, which oversaw summer courses and other programs that brought university knowledge directly to state citizens. He also took advantage of his friendship with Governor Robert M. La Follette, a former classmate at the university, to help forge closer ties between the university and state government; during the early part of the 20th century, faculty experts consulted with legislators to help draft many influential and groundbreaking laws, including the nation’s first workers’ compensation legislation, tax reforms and the public regulation of utilities.

These activities would not formally be described as “The Wisconsin Idea” until 1912, when Charles McCarthy described the philosophy in a book by that name. By that time, Wisconsin had developed a national reputation for legislative innovation, and McCarthy, the state’s legislative librarian, was overwhelmed by requests for background on the state’s progressive reforms. As President Theodore Roosevelt wrote in the introduction to McCarthy’s book, “In Wisconsin there has been a successful effort to redeem the promises by performances, and to reduce theories into practice.”

In those days, most people understood the Wisconsin Idea as narrowly defining this unique experiment in popular government, in which Wisconsin’s public university played a significant role in helping shape its legislation. Faculty served widely on advisory boards and applied their knowledge to help guide the state’s administration. Over time, however, the Idea has come to signify more broadly the university’s commitment to public service — a mission that substantially predates the progressive political era.

Stephen Babcock milking a cow.

Stephen Babcock milking a cow.

As early as the 1870s, UW president John Bascom implored his students — La Follette and Van Hise among them — that they had a moral duty to share their expertise broadly. And as early as the 1880s, the university began summer Farmers’ Institutes to introduce state farmers to new techniques and technology. These classes, along with research breakthroughs such as Stephen Babcock’s butterfat milk test, helped a poor, struggling state move beyond its single-grain farming and establish itself as a national leader in dairy and other agricultural industries. During the latter part of the 19th century, the university began similar programs for teachers and engineers, all with the goal of leveraging university knowledge to improve the quality of life in Wisconsin.

Although Van Hise is most often credited for articulating the philosophy underlying the Wisconsin Idea, its definition has evolved through the university’s history and still means many things in different circles. (Perhaps because of this, Van Hise expressed in a 1917 letter to Felix Frankfurter his “repugnance to the use of the phrase.”) A more modern definition of the Idea began to emerge in the 1930s, when a university publication described it as the notion that “the boundaries of campus are the boundaries of the state.” Although it isn’t clear who first used these words, they remain true today. In the spirit of the Wisconsin Idea, the university continues to seek ways to extend its influence beyond the boundaries of campus.