University of Wisconsin

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UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN. The origins of higher education in Wisconsin came in the provision of the new state's 1848 constitution mandating the founding of a public, nonsectarian institution of higher learning, financed by the sale of the state's designated public lands. Its first legislature elected a governing board of twelve regents, charged with choosing a chancellor, purchasing a site, erecting buildings, buying books and scientific apparatus, and administering the university fund, derived primarily from land sale revenues. The new university was established at Madison in 1849.

Over the years, the state legislature gradually assumed the lion's share of the university's funding, supplemented by student tuition and fees and by federal subsidies. The legislature also mandated the organization of four university departments: science, literature, and the arts; law; medicine; and elementary education. The allocation of another 240,000 acres of public lands by the Morrill Land Grant Act led to the Legislative Organic Act of 1866, which provided for appointment of the regents by the governor and mandated instruction in agricultural and technical subjects, as well as military tactics. While several other midwestern states established a second institution for those purposes, Wisconsin subsumed all of its higher education activities under a single aegis; it also consistently resisted subsequent efforts to establish a separate agricultural college.

That situation persisted until the founding of the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee in 1956 and of additional campuses in Green Bay and Kenosha-Racine (Parkside) in the late 1960s. In 1971, the legislature merged the four university campuses with those of the several Wisconsin state universities and two-year "centers," as well as the complex Extension Division, into a single University of Wisconsin System. By the end of the century, that system consisted of thirteen four-year and thirteen two-year campuses, a faculty of 6,559, a staff of 26,080, a student body of 155,298, and a budget of $2,922,311,886. Despite this expansion, the Madison campus remained the system's "flagship" and continued to be regarded by many, both within and without the state, as the University of Wisconsin.

Since 1851, the University of Wisconsin has become one of the country's preeminent universities; the majority of its academic disciplines and professional and graduate programs consistently rank among the top twenty-five in the nation. In addition, it has gained lasting distinction for a number of innovations in public higher education, beginning with the 1894 adoption by the regents of a specific guarantee of academic freedom: "Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe that the great state university of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found." Just a few years earlier, the campus embarked on what soon became the country's most extensive and celebrated system of educational outreach—the Extension Division, with its myriad courses and programs that reach an estimated audience of more than one million per year and provide abundant evidence for the claim that the boundaries of the campus are coextensive with those of the state. At least equally renowned has been its role in what came to be known as the "Wisconsin Idea." Led by some of its most famous graduates—Robert M. La Follette Sr., Charles R. Van Hise, and Charles McCarthy—and several of its most distinguished faculty—John R. Commons, Richard T. Ely, Edward A. Ross, and Fredrick Jackson Turner—university personnel established an enduring tradition of public service, drafting legislation, testifying before legislative committees, and serving on investigative and regulatory commissions.


Bogue, Allan G., and Robert Taylor, eds. The University of Wisconsin: One Hundred and Twenty-Five Years. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1975.

Curti, Merle, Vernon Carstensen, E. David Cronon, and John W. Jenkins. The University Of Wisconsin: A History. 4 vols. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1949–.

John D.Buenker

See alsoUniversities, State ; Wisconsin ; Wisconsin Idea .

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University of Wisconsin