What's the big idea? | wisconsinacademy.org
Your shopping cart is empty.


What's the big idea?

Editor's Notes

When Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker put forth his budget for the 2015–17 biennium, it arrived with some dramatic changes to the mission of the University of Wisconsin System. Particularly conspicuous were deletions to language central to the Wisconsin Idea, the guiding principle of the UW System “to extend knowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of its campuses and to serve and stimulate society.”

While the proposed changes to the UW System’s mission were walked back by a Walker administration spokesperson a few days after they were made public, debate over the UW budget continues as many students, faculty, and administrators as well as staff from related programs like Wisconsin Public Television and Radio prepare for inevitable cuts.

As a result of the “drafting error” to the budget that lead to the deletion of the Wisconsin Idea, millions of people now know about the Wisconsin Idea. Or do they?

Until the recent budget kerfuffle, I loosely understood the Wisconsin Idea as the guiding principle of the University of Wisconsin System, that great mass of knowledge and creativity that includes all state campuses as well as the two-year schools of the UW Colleges and UW Extension—about 40,000 faculty and staff and 180,000 students.

“I shall never be content until the beneficent influence of the University reaches every home in the state,” stated University of Wisconsin President Charles Van Hise in a 1904 speech, permanently affixing in our minds the guiding principle that a UW education is best used in service of the public.

Of course, the concept of the Wisconsin Idea didn’t spring fully formed from Van Hise. Rather, it was the product of much sifting and winnowing by Van Hise and contemporaries in both the university and the state legislature alike. Under Van Hise’s leadership (1903–1918), campus giants like John R. Commons, Thomas C. Chamberlin, Stephen Babcock, and Aldo Leopold regularly met with legislators and governors Robert La Follette and Francis McGovern. And it’s important to note that Van Hise, who was Wisconsin Academy president from 1894–1896, Thomas C. Chamberlin, who was Academy president from 1885–1887, and Academy members such as John R. Commons understood there were other vehicles—like the Wisconsin Academy—capable of delivering the promise of the Wisconsin Idea.

The Wisconsin Idea was during the early 20th century both guiding principle and a compact of sorts between the university and legislature, a way of ensuring that those who created policy were kept informed by and engaged with the most important research of the day. The function of this task often fell to Charles McCarthy and the newly formed Legislative Reference Bureau (for more on this, read McCarthy’s 1911 book, The Wisconsin Idea).

While age and geographic proximity were two reasons for the cozy relationship between the UW and the state legislature, Jack Stark’s article “The Wisconsin Idea: The University’s Service to the State” (Wisconsin Blue Book, 1995–1996) outlines in particular the friendship between native Wisconsinites and UW classmates Charles Van Hise and Robert La Follette as instrumental in the forging of this compact.

“During their tenures in office, La Follette repeatedly sought Van Hise’s counsel and appointed him to several state boards,” notes Stark in his fine exploration of the genesis and far-reaching impact of the Wisconsin Idea. Stark goes so far as to say that La Follette deserves a substantial share of the credit for the Wisconsin Idea, citing his deep draw on the UW for expertise and advice as well as his establishment of the Legislative Reference Bureau (brilliantly run by McCarthy) as a way to keep this exchange of knowledge constant and effective.

During his term as Wisconsin governor, Robert La Follette (1901–1906) developed the techniques and ideas that made him a nationwide symbol of reform—and made the state an emblem of progressive experimentation. Forged through his friendship with Van Hise, the guiding principles behind La Follette’s Wisconsin Idea stated that efficient government required control of institutions by the voters rather than special interests, and that the involvement of experts in law, economics, and social and natural sciences would produce the most effective government.

The real expression of La Follette’s Wisconsin Idea came during the 1911–1913 legislative session under Governor Francis McGovern. As historian R. David Myers notes is his wonderful but brief article, “The Wisconsin Idea: Its National and International Significance,” (Wisconsin Academy Review, Fall 1991), “A La Follette disciple, … McGovern worked closely with [Charles] McCarthy to make his years as governor the apex of progressive reform and probably the years when the [Wisconsin] Idea enjoyed its greatest reputation. The role of the Idea and the concept of Wisconsin as the laboratory for democracy can be seen in the legislation passed during the first decade and one-half of the twentieth century. The direct primary, railroad regulation, consumer protection, public utility regulation, progressive income tax, life insurance regulation, minimum wage, child labor, and workers’ compensation legislation were among the most notable laws enacted.”

What is especially important about this suite of reforms is how it served as a model for many other states (some of which completely adopted the legislation). The model Wisconsin Idea legislation was so important that at times even the federal government adopted large parts of Wisconsin laws verbatim.

In this way, the Wisconsin Idea continues to play a role in the lives of hundreds of millions of American citizens—whether they know it or not. Certainly support for the Wisconsin Idea today means one believes that education should enhance lives both in and out of the classroom. But support for the Wisconsin Idea is also an acknowledgment that government can and should harness the power of knowledge to improve the human condition.


From 2008 to 2021 Jason A. Smith was the associate director of the Wisconsin Academy and editor of its quarterly magazine of Wisconsin thought and culture, Wisconsin People & Ideas.

Contact Us

Follow Us

Wisconsin Academy Offices 
1922 University Avenue
Madison, Wisconsin 53726
Phone: 608.733.6633


James Watrous Gallery 
3rd Floor, Overture Center for the Arts
201 State Street
Madison, WI 53703
Phone: 608.733.6633 x25