Professor Bassam Z. Shakhashiri,
   Director of the Wisconsin Initiative for Science Literacy
   First Holder of the William T. Evjue Distinguished Chair for the Wisconsin Idea


The Wisconsin Idea proclaims, "The boundaries of the University are the boundaries of the state." It means that the University should not be an ivory tower institution but should serve all the people of the state in relevant ways. This may seem obvious today, but in the mid-19th century it was revolutionary. At that time, most institutions of higher education were private schools which emphasized a "classical" education in Greek and Latin, and few people were privileged to attend.  

No one knows who coined the phrase "Wisconsin Idea" or when, but as early as 1858 a state legislative committee defined the role of a state-supported university:

"The general government has made a munificent donation to the people of Wisconsin. They have an unquestioned right to demand that it shall primarily be adapted to popular needs, that its courses of instruction shall be arranged to meet as fully as possible the wants of the greatest number of our citizens."

Charles R. Van Hise

In 1906, University President Charles Van Hise said, "I shall never be content until the beneficent influence of the University reaches every family in the state." [1]

The Wisconsin Idea became nationally famous. In 1912 Theodore Roosevelt, impressed by the way in which Wisconsin had achieved substantial improvements without resorting to sweeping experiments, declared that "all through the Union we need to learn the Wisconsin lesson of scientific popular self-help, and of patient care in radical legislation." [2]

In recent decades the borders of the University have expanded to the borders of the nation, the world and beyond.  Today the University draws students from around the world, sends researchers to every part of the world, and sends experiments into space.

Among the University's pioneering efforts:

  • In 1860 the University introduced continuing education for professionals by offering a short-term course for teachers.
  • The University admitted its first full-time women students in 1863.
  • The University established an experimental farm in 1866.
  • University Extension was founded in 1907 and soon had agriculture agents in every county. It pioneered correspondence courses and is now promoting distance education.
  • WHA, originally 9XM, is the oldest continually operating radio station in the United States. WHA was licensed to the University in 1915 and has been on the air since 1916 serving the general public. Wisconsin Public Broadcasting now has 24 radio stations and six television stations and Wisconsin Public Radio is webcast.
  • Today the University offers more than 400 extended hours classes after 4 PM and on weekends and thousands of web sites providing information to the public.
Robert M. La Follette, Sr.

The Wisconsin Idea has also fostered a long partnership between the University and government. University of Wisconsin Law School graduates Robert M. La Follette Sr. and his wife Belle Case La Follette founded the Progressive Party which promoted many reforms including civil service, primary elections, and direct election of US senators. "Fighting Bob" La Follette served as Wisconsin governor and U.S. senator. Belle Case La Follette was the first woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin Law School, in 1885. In the early 1900s, Professor John R. Commons drafted the state's first civil service law and helped draft the nation's first worker's compensation law. In the 1930s, University Professor Edwin Witte, along with other faculty and graduate students, drafted the nation's first unemployment compensation law and Social Security legislation. Law Professor Frank Turkheimer served as a special counsel for the Congressional Watergate hearings in 1974.  More recently, Political Science Professor Don Kettl chaired governor's blue ribbon commissions on campaign finance reform and the relationship between state and local governments. These are just a few of the many faculty who have advised governments. 

Many University graduates have held government positions. In 1976 Shirley S. Abrahamson (S.J.D., U.W. Law School 1962) became the first woman to serve on the state Supreme Court. In 1996 she became the first woman Chief Justice.  Tommy G. Thompson (B.S. 1963, J.D. 1966) was the longest-serving Wisconsin governor (1987-2001) and now serves as Secretary of Health and Human Services. Eight of Wisconsin's last ten governors were graduates of the U.W.-Madison. In addition to Thompson they are: Vernon Thomson (B.A. 1927, LL.B. 1932), Gaylord Nelson (LL.B. 1942), John Reynolds (Ph.B. 1946, LL.B. 1949), Warren Knowles (LL.B. 1933), Patrick Lucey (B.A. 1946), Lee Sherman Dreyfus (B.A. 1949, M.A. 1952, Ph.D. 1957 – Dreyfus was also a Professor of Communication Arts at U.W.-Madison and Chancellor of the U.W.-Stevens Point), and current governor James Doyle (B.A. 1967).

Some 2250 University graduates have entered the Peace Corps, more than any other university.

The University is a leader in research which has often led to applications that have improved the quality of life for everyone. For example, Wisconsin's dairy industry would not be possible without the pioneering agricultural research conducted by University faculty starting in the 1880s and continuing today. Many University faculty saw no clear dividing line between basic research and applied research. Much of their research has been aimed at solving specific problems, but they assumed that all research would eventually provide concrete benefits. In 1933, some farmers asked Professor Karl Paul Link why eating spoiled sweet clover made their cows bleed to death. Link found and synthesized dicumarol, a blood thinner which impedes coagulation. Eventually, Link made more than 100 variants of dicumerol. Some are used in human medicine and have saved the lives of thousands of people in danger from blood clots. Another variation, Warfarin, is one of the most efficient rat poisons ever invented and is used around the world. Warfarin was named for the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. Link gave the patent to the Foundation, which has made tens of millions of dollars from it and used the money to fund more research.
Aldo Leopold

Wisconsin has also been a leader in the environmental movement. John Muir (x1864) is considered the father of the national park system and founded the Sierra Club. Professor Aldo Leopold founded the study of wildlife ecology and his 1949 best-selling book A Sand County Almanac (referring to Adams County, Wisconsin) is a classic which still sells briskly today. Former Wisconsin governor and U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson (LL.B. 1942) founded Earth Day.

Three Nobel Prize winners carried out their research at the U.W.-Madison. In 1958 Professor Joshua Lederberg won the Nobel for discoveries relating to genetic recombination. In 1970 Biochemistry Professor Har Gobind Khorana won the Nobel for the first synthesis of a gene. In 1975 Oncology Professor Howard Temin won the prize for discovering retroviruses. Today the University is a world leader in stem cell research under Professor James Thomson, who was the first to develop a replicating strain of stem cells. The University established a research park in 1983 under Chancellor Irv Shain. The park now has 88 tenants more than half of which directly apply University research.

University Research Park

The University renewed its commitment to the Wisconsin Idea in 2000 with the creation of the William T. Evjue Distinguished Chair for the Wisconsin Idea, endowed by the Evjue Foundation.  Professor Shakhashiri was appointed the first holder of the chair in 2001. The University also established Wisconsin Idea Fellowships. As part of the re-accreditation process and expansion of the Wisconsin Idea under Chancellor David Ward and Provost (now Chancellor) John Wiley, the University re-organized and increased co-ordination of the outreach efforts already under way by many schools and departments of the University.

The Wisconsin Initiative for Science Literacy is proud to continue this long tradition of bringing the benefits of University education and research to everyone.

The Evjue Foundation

The Evjue Foundation is the charitable arm of the The Capital Times newspaper in Madison. The Foundation was established in 1970 by the will of William T. Evjue, founder and longtime publisher of The Capital Times. The Foundation makes more than one and a half million dollars in grants each year to educational, cultural and charitable organizations.


  1. From The Wisconsin Idea in the 1995-1996 Wisconsin Blue Book, compiled by the Wisconsin Legislative Reference bureau
  2. From The Bulletin of the University of Wisconsin, Vol. 1962, No. 11.

Further Reading

        Sifting and winnowing turns 125: The tumultuous story of three little words
        UW News

        John Nichols: Tony Evers won as the Wisconsin Idea candidate

        The Wisconsin Idea

        The Wisconsin Idea and its History
        UW Website

        A Study In Scarlet
        Distillations Magazine
        Science History Institute

        Law that radically changed UW signed 150 years ago
        UW News

        New monument pays tribute to the Wisconsin Idea
        UW News

        Wisconsin Idea: The University's Service to the State and The Wisconsin Idea for the 21st Century
        Legislative Reference Bureau