Economics at Wisconsin

Crest of the University of Wisconsin

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The University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wisconsin, was founded in 1848 by the government of the state of Wisconsin.  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.  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).  Shortly after, in coordination with 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, but the State authorities were beginning to see promise.

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, 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.  

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 University of Wisconsin president, Charles Kendall Adams  (poached from Cornell in 1892), 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.

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.

(to be completed)




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