School Troops Resources

Economics at Wisconsin

Crest of the University of Wisconsin

[Note: Part of the HET Website.  This page is not related to or endorsed by the University of Wisconsin or any other organization. See the official University of Wisconsin website]

The University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wisconsin, was founded in 1848 by the government of the state of Wisconsin, only a couple of months after Wisconsin was admitted as a state in the union.  Plans for a public university had been launched by the territorial government a decade earlier, in 1838. Provision for the establishment of a state university in the capital had been set out in a clause of the Wisconsin state constitution, and the act formally establishing the University of Wisconsin in Madison was signed by the state governor on July 26, 1848.  University of Missouri president John H. Lathrop was appointed the first chancellor of the University of Wisconsin in 1849. 

Unlike the Ivy League universities of the east coast, the "Wisconsin experiment" was to provide a publicly-funded higher education to the ordinary citizens of the state.  As such, from the outset, "public service" was written into the very foundations of the university.  However, having little guidance on what this meant, Wisconsin immediately embraced the Anglo-Saxon "finishing school" model of the private universities: a "classical" curriculum (Latin, Greek, rhetoric, mathematics, etc.), heavy emphasis on moral development and a dab of economics only in the final year.  

Soon enough, the Wisconsin State Legislature, which believed that the university had failed its "public service" promise, began campaigning against it. Annoyed at the pressure, Lathrop resigned in 1859, and was briefly replaced by Connecticut educator Henry Barnard.  Long-time mathematics professor John W. Sterling took up the presidency in 1861.  

The Civil War of the 1860s thinned the classes and the unpopular university was on the verge of closure.  So, to justify its existence, the university finally got around to fulfilling its public service role.  Its first step was to create a teacher's college (and enrolling legions of women).  In 1863, Sterling made Wisconsin co-educational, opening admission of women to the main college ("Normal School").  But after the war, his successor in 1867, Paul Chadbourne, decided to split it into male and female colleges (the battle for coeducation would be taken up by Chadbourne's successor John Twombly in 1870).. In 1866, availing itself of the land-grant funds from the Morrill Act of 1862, the university set up a College of Agriculture.  A Department of Engineering and School of Law followed soon after.  Much of the traditionally-minded older faculty disapproved of these practical changes, but the State authorities were beginning to see promise and in 1872 voted for annual subsidy to support the university. 

In 1874, John Bascom became the president of the university and the final-year lectures on economics fell upon him.  Bascom had previously (when at Williams College) been very much of the American "apologist" school and had written a textbook in this tone.  However, he had grown more favorable to progressive causes, like the prohibition of alcohol and women's suffrage, and consequently began advocating a role for an interventionist state in society.   Bascom's lectures to Wisconsin seniors were full-blown articulations of Christian Socialist doctrine.  Bascom inspired the generation of undergraduates who would later lead the Wisconsin Progressivist movement.   However, at the time, Bascom's crusades fell foul of the more practically-minded political appointees of the Board of Regents and so he was pressured out of office in 1887.  

Bascom's replacement in 1887, geologist Thomas C. Chamberlin, had different ideas.  For him, public service was not "moral enlightenment" but rather providing a modern and practical education to the common citizenry.  It was Chamberlin who initiated "extension lectures" on practical subjects to Wisconsinites in all walks of life and encouraged cooperation between the schools of agriculture and engineering and local farmers, craftsmen and manufacturers.   Chamberlin was also an avid promoter of serious graduate research on the "German" model.   Chamberlin instituted graduate fellowships and earned degrees.  Wisconsin granted its first Ph.D in 1892. 

The creation of the well-funded University of Chicago in 1892 seemed to threaten Chamberlin's vision of making Wisconsin the premiere university of the American Midwest.  Frederick Jackson Turner, a history professor and recently-returned graduate from Johns Hopkins, suggested that Chamberlin may be able to lure the prominent Richard T. Ely, then unhappy with his situation at Hopkins.  Chamberlin quickly convinced Wisconsin's Board of Regents to loosen the funds to found a School of Economics, Political Science and History (along the "French model" of a civil service training school).  Ely was then offered the directorship of the School.  He arrived in 1892, bringing with him a coterie of Hopkins graduate students.  These included the newly-minted Ph.D. William A. Scott, who was immediately appointed assistant professor at Wisconsin.  David Kinley and Charles J. Bullock came as students and took on teaching responsibilities.  But Chamberlin himself would not stay on - lured by Chicago, Chamblerin decamped that same year to lead its geology department.  Wisconsin poached Charles Kendall Adams from Cornell to succeed Chamberlin as the new president of Wisconsin.

Although Ely was happy as the autonomous and undisputed master of the social sciences at Wisconsin, he was quick to get into trouble.  He gave many "public extension" lectures on a variety of topics (including "On Socialism"), which raised the eyebrows of some of the more conservative elders of the state.  The violent Pullman Strike of 1894, which paralyzed railway networks in the Midwest, had brought the labor question back up.  The left-leaning Ely was quickly denounced for his "pernicious doctrines" undermining the notion of public property and was accused of being an "anarchist".  Some politicians and state officials demanded his dismissal, but the new Wisconsin president, Charles Kendall Adams, decided to stand behind Ely.  After public hearings by the state's Board of Regents in 1895, Ely was exonerated and the Board put forth an eloquent statement in  defense of the principle of academic freedom (its final phrase "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." - was later engraved on a plaque and placed at the entrance of the main university building at Wisconsin)    

 In the 1890s, while Wisconsin economics was taught by Ely, Scott, Kinley and Bullock, the program expanded greatly.  In 1893, Kinley moved on to the University of Illinois and, In 1895, Bullock moved on to Cornell.  Two Wisconsin Ph.D.s, Edward D. Jones and Helen Page Bates, were appointed to the faculty to replace them.   A new Hopkins Ph.D., Thomas S. Adams, was appointed in 1901 to teach public finance.  Henry C. Taylor, a Wisconsin Ph.D., initiated a program in agricultural economics in 1902.   

However, Ely's power over the social sciences was being simultaneously diminished.  In 1900, in an effort to hold onto Turner, the Wisconsin administration created a separate "School of History", reducing Ely's realm to a mere School of Economics and Political Science. That same year, a separate College of Commerce was created with Walter Scott as its head.  Although it had the professional objective of training businessmen, it siphoned off the enrollments in Ely's School.  In 1903, a College of Letters and Sciences was created and Ely's School was folded into it as one of its constituent departments, thereby undermining his autonomy.

Struck by ill-heatlh, C.K. Adams had left as president in 1901, and after a period under the interim Edward A. Birge, the progressive Charles Van Hise became president of the University of Wisconsin in 1903. A close ally of Wisconsin governor La Robert Follette, it was Van Hise who articulated the "Wisconsin Idea" most clearly, setting out the public mission of the university during the Progressive Era.

In an effort to raise his profile, Ely founded the American Bureau of Industrial Research in 1904 with the financial assistance of Yale's Henry W. Farnam.  The intention was to create a history of American labor.  Ely used the funds to bring in John R. Commons, his old student from Hopkins days, as professor of political economy at Wisconsin in 1904.   Another old Ely student, Edward A. Ross, was given an appointment at the department of sociology in 1906.

With these appointments, Wisconsin quickly surged ahead of the academic pack, leapfrogging over Hopkins, Harvard, Yale and other aspiring schools.  Only Columbia could ostensibly be considered above it in the production of new economics Ph.Ds.

For much of its history, the University of Wisconsin had only one campus (Madison), but a variety of "university centers" (outgrowths of the extension movement).  In the post-war period, the Wisconsin state legislature elevated a number of state teacher's colleges into fully-fledged "Wisconsin State Colleges", outside of the UW system.  In 1955, the University of Wisconsin created its second campus at Milwaukee, by merging the UW extension center in Milwaukee with the local Wisconsin State College. In 1964, UW was reorganized, with one central administration (UW) and three constituent units: UW-Madison, UW-Milwaukee and "UW-University Centers" (covering nine centers at the time). In 1969, the UW centers at Green Bay and Parkside were raised to separate UW colleges. Finally, in 1971, the Wisconsin State legislature established the "University of Wisconsin System", merging the UW units (Madison, Milwaukee, Green Bay, Parkside, and remaining Centers) with the nine Wisconsin State Colleges into a single overarching system.

(to be completed)


Presidents of the University of Wisconsin

  • 1849 John Hiram Lalthrop ("chancellor")
  • 1859 Henry Barnard
  • 1861 John W. Sterling ("executive officer")
  • 1867 Paul Chadbourne ("president")
  • 1870 John Hanson Twombly
  • 1874 John Bascom
  • 1887 Thomas C. Chamberlin
  • 1892 Charles Kendall Adams
  • 1901 (acting president: Edward A. Birge)
  • 1903 Charles R. Van Hise
  • 1915 Edward A. Birge
  • 1925 Glenn Frank
  • 1937 Clarence A. Dykstra
  • 1945 Edwin B. Fred
  • 1958 Conrad Elvehjem
  • 1962 Fred H. Harrington (UW), Robert Clodius (Madison)
  • 1971 John C. Weaver
  • 1971 UW system created.


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Resources on Wisconsin Economics


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All rights reserved, Gonçalo L. Fonseca