The Wisconsin Idea Turns 100

By Neil Heinen Madison Magazine

There is, arguably, no school in America as connected to an underlying philosophical statement of mission as the University of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Idea. There are likely very few of the hundreds of thousands of living UW alumni who would not be able to recite the most common definition of the Wisconsin Idea as ?the boundaries of the campus [being] the boundaries of the state.? It is deeply rooted in everything from course offerings to faculty and student service, especially on the Madison campus, and it is a foundational piece of the relationship between the citizens of Wisconsin and their land grant university. This year, 2012, marks the 100th anniversary of the Wisconsin Idea, or at least of the publication of the two major books that explored the idea, if not coined the phrase. So it?s the perfect time to step back and ask the question: What does the Wisconsin Idea mean today and, perhaps more important, what will it mean for the next 100 years?

To be fair, these questions are not new ones. Smart people knew this anniversary was approaching and have been thinking hard about them. I remember perhaps ten years ago, Madison College board member Noel Radomski, then assistant to then chancellor David Ward, talking about the new, global dimensions of the twenty-first century Wisconsin Idea, and how the boundaries of the original institution now include all UW System campuses as well as community colleges and private universities and colleges.

And UW?Madison has been making celebration plans for a while. There?ll be events on campus throughout the year. There?s even a website dedicated to the occasion,, with contributions from faculty, staff and students. The site features a searchable database of examples of the Wisconsin Idea in action as well as a calendar of events.

But to take full advantage of a once-a-century opportunity to take stock of something as important as the vision for one of the world?s most important research institutions, it?s important to both revisit the Idea in the first place, and think about the context for its continued relevance. As is often the case with intellectual property, there?s no universally accepted origin of the term ?Wisconsin Idea.? It was the title of Charles McCarthy?s book published in March 1912. But like Frederic C. Howe?s book, Wisconsin: An Experiment in Democracy, published a month later, which also made the case for this grand vision, The Wisconsin Idea was really an examination of the laws of the day, and the philosophy behind those laws that established Wisconsin as the birthplace of Progressivism and the Progressive movement. Going back a little further, former UW President Charles Van Hise is quoted as saying in a 1904 speech, ?I shall never be content until the beneficent influence of the University reaches every home in the state.? Van Hise is the guy who created the UW Extension so attributing the Wisconsin Idea to him has some merit.

Regardless of its origin, the Wisconsin Idea 100 years ago had the university playing a pivotal role in helping shape legislation in what was widely seen as a unique experiment in popular government. Among those holding that view was none less than Theodore Roosevelt, who penned the foreword for McCarthy?s book. Wisconsin, he writes, ?has become literally a laboratory for wise experimental legislation aiming to secure the social and political betterment of the people as a whole.? Reading on, one is struck by the uncanny, modern relevance of Roosevelt?s critique.

?It is no easy matter,? he writes, ?actually to insure, instead of merely talking about, a measurable equality of opportunity for all men. It is no easy matter to secure justice for those who in the past have not received it, and at the same time to see that no injustice is meted out to others in the process. It is no easy matter to keep the balance level and make it evident that we have set our faces like flint against seeing this government turned into either government by a plutocracy, or government by a mob. It is no easy matter to give the public their proper control over corporations and big business, and yet to prevent abuse of that control. Wisconsin has achieved a really remarkable success along each and every one of those lines of difficult endeavor.?

It?s disheartening to think how that message would be received in today?s political climate. Perhaps that?s the first task at hand, to reconcile the Wisconsin Idea of ?difficult endeavor,? and the Wisconsin Idea of a university dedicated to public service.

After ten chapters with titles like ?Regulating the Railroads and Public Utility Corporations,? ?Shifting the Costs of Human Injury? and ?Equalizing the Tax Burdon??all accomplished by the La Follette-influenced political leaders in the state at that time?Howe gets to the Wisconsin Idea in what he called ?The Democratization of Learning.? He described education in America as ?a tripod, of research, of vocation, and of culture.? It remained for Wisconsin, he writes, to develop a fourth function, that of service. McCarthy advances the idea by saying, ?the increasing spirit in Wisconsin demanded that the University should serve the state and all of its people and that it should be an institution for all the people in the state and not merely the few who could send their sons and daughters to Madison.?

We know well the 2012 challenges the state faces in sending its sons and daughters to Madison. And that only magnifies the importance of re-thinking the Wisconsin Idea of the next century. One hundred years ago the Extension was the outreach vehicle and it served the state well. It still does. But both the state and the world have changed. How does the Wisconsin Idea keep up?

Few people have given this as much thought as returning-acting-Chancellor David Ward, who not only anticipated this anniversary during his first term in Bascom Hall, but had an inside look at the conversation nationally as president of the American Council on Education during the intervening ten years. Ward?s assessment of the relevance of the Wisconsin Idea today starts with the boundaries. ?It really is the state?s inter-actions with the rest of the world. So at one time it was sort of UW and the state, now it?s UW, the state and the rest of the world.?

But more than just the scale has changed, says Ward. So has technology. ?And this means that our outreach, which was classically with the agricultural sector and then later with the public sector. I think of dairy farms, and then social security and then employment insurance. There?s ways in which knowledge in the university gained practical use in society. Now I think it?s more in our contributions to the internet and to improve communication as a way of helping Wisconsin be a global player in terms of its industries. Markets have to be global now.?

However, there?s a third issue in addition to boundaries and technology, and Ward says it is turning out to be quite important: money. As public funds diminish, how do you keep alive a public purpose? ?And the Wisconsin Idea, I think, allows you to think about that. That there?s still a continuing obligation to connect with the state, connect with our schools, connect with individuals, particularly in innovative businesses. So I think that we need to keep thinking about it because this public mission is important, and therefore this sense of serving the state, and through the state connecting the state with the world is a very important public purpose. So I value it as an idea that is a framework for our public purpose.?

While not explicit, one could argue the debate last spring over the structure of the UW System, and greater independence and autonomy for the Madison campus, was a discussion of the future of the Wisconsin Idea. While the very creation of the System came nearly seventy years after the Wisconsin Idea, they quickly adapted to each other. Supporters of changing Madison?s relationship with the other colleges in the System made the case that all would benefit from Madison?s independent authority model. Ward does not disagree entirely with the thought, but goes further.

?I think the idea [is] developing not one model of higher education, but multiple models. And rather than just easing the existing heavy dose of bureaucracy as a way of encouraging campus collaboration, a facilitation of inter-campus relationships is, in some ways, a better expression of the Wisconsin Idea.? And I think that?s a debate well worth having. I think it is a debate; I don?t think it?s self-evident as this spring proved. But as I looked at Wisconsin from Washington, I thought if you could make this system work, it would probably be in the public interest for the state and would be a better outcome. But obviously if you couldn?t reform the system, then maybe the threat of succession is what it might take to have something that is, in a sense, more of a collaborative structure than a control structure.?

So that debate will be part of determining the next 100 years of the Wisconsin Idea. But is there anything of the original Wisconsin Idea to include in its future? The most provocative perspective would be its connection to political philosophy, Wisconsin political philosophy in particular. The Wisconsin Idea was about reform. And, Teddy Roosevelt argues, not just political reform. ?It must accompany economic reform,? he writes in his introduction, ?and economic reform must have a twofold object; first to increase general prosperity, because unless there is such general prosperity no one will be well off; and, second, to secure a fair distribution of this prosperity, so that the man of the people shall share in it.?

It?s hard to imagine in the current dysfunctional mess that is Wisconsin politics today, but this state was once a leader in integrity, honesty, transparency and courageous political reform. Since our state leaders seem immune from such values, might a new Wisconsin Idea springing from the service mission of the University influence the badly needed transformation of state politics in this century?

The other component of the original Wisconsin Idea that seems (perhaps incongruently) relevant today is the scope. Are the boundaries global now? No doubt. But, David Ward suggests, we can?t forget our roots.

?I think, in the short run, if we have a sense of the welfare of the Midwestern region and more particularly of Wisconsin, we have to try to find some ? balance. I think the Wisconsin Idea does remind you not to forget the local and the regional. However global you may be, you come back to that original idea. There?s got to be something local and regional in this, otherwise it?s not the Wisconsin Idea.?

Neil Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine.

The Idea in Practice We asked some notable alumni, What does the Wisconsin Idea mean to you?

For generations, young people have come to campus as students where they live and learn from faculty, staff and each other through experiences shaped by the Wisconsin Idea. Indeed, the very ethos of this community is built on a commitment to serving others and sharing knowledge and talents for the greater good. However, it is after their time on campus when Wisconsin alumni truly distinguish themselves by living the Wisconsin Idea through public and community service and contributing innovations around the globe that make a difference in the lives of others. UW alumni are the very embodiment of the Wisconsin Idea.

? Paula Bonner, UW graduate, 1978; president and CEO of the Wisconsin Alumni Association

The Wisconsin Idea is an elegant guiding principle: When taxpayers invest in a university, it should, in turn, pay dividends to the state. Said more bluntly: A public university cannot be simply a spa for its students? self-improvement. It must directly benefit citizens who might never even set foot on its campuses. Like a good strategic plan, the Wisconsin Idea should inform the university?s priority setting and decision making. The Wisconsin Idea has long resided at the intersection of education, government and society. Today, in our state, that?s extraordinarily contentious territory. All the more reason that those who embrace the Wisconsin Idea demonstrate its continuing positive impact, lest the mission statement be dismissed as merely a marketing slogan.

? Jill Geisler, UW graduate, 1972; Senior Faculty/Leadership and Management, The Poynter Institute

I feel lucky to have witnessed the full circle of the Wisconsin Idea: As an undergraduate alumnus of UW and current graduate student at the La Follette School of Public Affairs, I have met many great and talented people from around the state who have come to UW?Madison to learn and contribute to incredible research. In my work with UW?Extension, Cooperative Extension, I get to see the transformative power of applying that research in meaningful ways to communities across Wisconsin.

? Nick Heckman, UW graduate, 2007; La Follette School of Public Affairs Masters of Public Affairs Candidate, 2012; Poverty and Food Insecurity Project Assistant, UW? Extension, Cooperative Extension

Innovation makes me a Badger. Badgers turn me into an innovator. Badgers with innovations contribute to communities, to societies, to mankind … that which makes UW stand forever with pride.

? Kamoltip (Au) Payakvichien, UW graduate, 1971; founder, Wangree Resort in Nakhon Nayok, Thailand; recipient of Distinguished Alumni Award, 2011

As long as the Light of Knowledge is still the UW spirit, we will keep moving forward to create Wisconsin Wisdom, helping our world to lead the civilization of humankind on the right path.

? Pongsak Payakvichien, UW graduate, 1971; executive director, Matichon Public Company in Bangkok, Thailand; recipient of Distinguished Alumni Award, 2000

The enduring power of the Wisconsin Idea is that it contains a simple truth: Everybody thinks they have the answer but nobody wants to ask the questions; and there is never just one question, which is where the ?sifting and winnowing? comes in. As for the ?fearless? part of the equation, one is reminded that a true hero is not necessarily the one who rushes into battle with chest thrust forward but rather the one who simply wakes up every morning ready to face the slings and arrows of another day.

? Ben Sidran, UW graduate, 1966; world-renowned jazz legend

COOL IDEAS For more examples of the Wisconsin Idea playing out through the state and around the world, visit You?ll also find background on the Idea, including a historic timeline, as well as a guide to Year of the Wisconsin Idea events and a searchable database of more than a thousand examples of projects taking place around Wisconsin. Want to share your own experience of the Wisconsin Idea? Visit to tell your story.