The Pursuit of Truth and Academic Freedom: A Wisconsin Story

Let’s begin with some well-known words: “Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere we believe the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.” This statement stands on a plaque at the top of Bascom Hill at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

You can also read it here at UWM, at the entrance to our Mitchell Hall. The inspiring words came from the UW Board of Regents in 1894. They vindicated Professor Richard T. Ely, head of the School of Economics, Political Science, and History, voice of the Social Gospel, and advocate for the cause of labor. The accusation against Ely charged that he had encouraged labor strikes; the accuser demanded his termination from the University. In their vindication of Ely the Regents made an historic defense of academic freedom, endearing ever since to those who value it.

I would like to move this subject one step back in time and one step forward in Wisconsin’s history. In fact, the background for the Regents’ bold declaration lay firmly in place in 1894, the work and achievement of the man honored by the building that sets prominently on the top of that hill, Bascom Hall. John Bascom served as UW president from 1874 to 1887. He was above all a thinker. He wrote many books and essays on philosophy, and theology, and sociology. Furthermore, he threw himself into the hot-button political issues of his day; he championed temperance, the rights of women, and the labor movement. Bascom, in working for all these causes, drew on the intellectual influences that shaped his larger thinking: German philosophical idealism, Protestant liberal theology, and evolution. All of these influences made Bascom committed to the principle of change and opposed to dogma, whether the matter be religious faith or gender roles or political ideology. In this brief essay, I turn to Bascom’s role as an academic reformer.

Bascom joined the work of other American leaders in higher education in bringing about the new era of the university. Following the German model that inspired them they emphasized that research and scholarship must assume a new priority in the work of the American institutions. Bascom thus appealed to the Regents to reduce faculty teaching loads and to encourage specialization in the professors’ fields of knowledge.

Bascom knew that this process must have no restraints. “Inquiry,” the President said in a baccalaureate sermon, “is a continuous, living, process. It is not the work of one man, or generation, or period.” And so must the modern university approach its work. Many who experienced the Bascom years at the UW believed that he made a major impact in creating a new and serious intellectual atmosphere on the campus. And Bascom campaigned for it. Early in his administration he arranged to place in the student newspaper a little piece he had written titled “The Spirit of the University.” That spirit, he wrote, is something that transcends the classroom and the formalities of the campus life; it is, he said, “an inspiration, a growing estimate of truth, an appetite for excellence …” “The central quality of our spirit as a University,” Bascom affirmed, “should be a large-minded love of knowledge, a thorough disposition candidly and completely to know the truth.” He urged that the University of Wisconsin “escape the spirit that dare not inquire lest it should break in on beliefs already entertained.”

Bascom had another priority. He was a champion of the state and constantly stressed the importance of the public interest against the power and influence of private rights, in this era of corporations and trusts, the Gilded Age. One Bascom student above all took that message to heart, Robert Marion La Follette, Class of 1879. Belle Case La Follette, his wife, described the inspiration “Fighting Bob” derived from Bascom; she in fact considered Bascom the true originator of the Wisconsin Idea.

La Follette became Wisconsin governor in 1901and three years later another Bascom student from the class of 1879 became president of the UW–Charles Richard Van Hise. With the political reforms that marked La Follette’s leadership in the Progressive Era and Van Hise’s merging the work of the University with the work of the state, the Wisconsin Idea came into fruition. Van Hise, too, championed the pursuit of truth and the academic freedom that enables it. The university, Van Hise once told a group of visitors, has the duty to seek truth and to advance knowledge. But it can realistically do so only on the principle “that knowledge is nowhere fixed, that all things are fluid. The ideas which we hold today will not be held tomorrow in precisely the same form.” He added: “Just as the spirit of authority represses or destroys universities, so the spirit of freedom creates and inspires them.” (If you visit UW-Madison look for another plaque in front of Bascom Hall. It has this statement from Van Hise: “I shall never be content until the beneficent influence of the University reaches every home in the state.”)

The intellectual history here represents the progressive side of this subject and correlates with the political movement of Wisconsin Progressivism and with the Wisconsin Idea. But I’ll conclude with another side of the Wisconsin story. Let’s remember that the academic freedom case of Richard T. Ely in 1894 dealt with the protection of university professors from political interference. But there emerged later a situation involving the reaction of professors to views advanced by a politician. And that politician was none other than Robert La Follette. The issue: World War I.

From the very moment when the prospect of American intervention in the war emerged, La Follette opposed it. He then spoke out strongly against the preparedness campaign of President Woodrow Wilson. La Follette condemned the war as one of commercial greed. Only the manufacturing and financial interests, he said, would gain from the war. Ordinary people would pay for it and gain nothing. Now senator from Wisconsin La Follette spoke for four hours in the Senate against the American declaration of war in April 1917.

People around the nation denounced La Follette. Theodore Roosevelt called him “a shadow Hun.” But more relevant to us, the University of Wisconsin faculty also condemned La Follette. The UW, in fact, marched in step with the generality of American universities in embracing the war and turning their campuses into military training camps and creating courses on “war aims.” Individuals who had brought the Wisconsin Idea into being now turned against the man who had given it political expression, Robert La Follette. Richard Ely took a major role in the National Board of Historical Service, designed to show what professors could do to support the war. Moreover, Ely worked to get evidence of the damage La Follette was doing to the war cause, as did John R. Commons, economics professor at UW and a major architect of the Wisconsin Idea. He worked with Ely and others to shut down La Follette and he in turn sought to see to La Follette’s defeat in the next election. And Van Hise, too. He told a faculty meeting that La Follette’s anti-war declarations “are dangerous to the country.” Of all the condemnations made of him, this one La Follette found especially painful, coming from his long-time friend and UW classmate. A faculty resolution that charged La Follette with giving “aid and comfort to Germany and her allies” passed with near unanimity. So much for the pursuit of truth and the free expression of ideas beyond the campus.

Perhaps we can say that these principles, which found eloquent statement in the Wisconsin history reviewed here, needed a greater commitment to their implementation in practice. Therein lie the challenge to later generations, and to ours.

J. David Hoeveler, Distinguished Professor of History at UWM, is author of a book to be published in June by the University of Wisconsin Press and titled “John Bascom and the Origins of the Wisconsin Idea.”