Category Archives: Wisconsin and Regional Interest

Land Economics and the history of “Sifting and Winnowing”

Land Economics journal founder Richard T. Ely and the battle for academic freedom

Richard T. Ely
Richard T. Ely

The founder of the field of land economics, and of the journal of the same name, played a pivotal role in the history of the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He also scored a victory for academics everywhere when he defended his teaching and scholarship against charges that it promoted a subversive political agenda. Richard T. Ely taught economics at the University of Wisconsin from 1892 to 1925. His Progressivist ideas went against the current of the laissez-faire economic theory of the time, and his support for social reforms and organized labor earned him the scrutiny of the Wisconsin Superintendent of Public Instruction, Oliver E. Wells. Wells charged that Ely was promoting anarchism and socialism to his students, and that he encouraged labor union strikes and boycotts—charges that Ely denied. In fact, he had written articles and books that were critical of socialism. Under media scrutiny, the UW Board of Regents launched an investigation, and Ely was tried in a public hearing in August of 1894. The economics community, as well as other academics, spoke out emphatically in Ely’s defense, and he was acquitted by a unanimous vote. In their report of the hearing, the regents issued a strong statement in support of academic freedom, part of which now graces a plaque on the university’s main administration building. The plaque reads:

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.

This idea of “sifting and winnowing” has become a cornerstone of the University of Wisconsin’s institutional philosophy, and in this phrase, proponents of higher education can recognize the imperative to preserve the freedom to teach and research without censorship.

Land Economics cover image

Ely went on to found the Institute for Research in Land Economics and Public Utilities in 1920, along with the Journal of Land & Public Utility Economics. In 1948, this journal was renamed Land Economics. For more on Ely, see this excellent history of “sifting and winnowing,” which appeared in September of this year to mark the 125th anniversary of the regents’ statement. Additionally, Ely’s legacy has been a recurring topic in the pages of Land Economics. He is profiled in this tribute from the year of his death, in the published proceedings of a 1948 symposium at UW–Madison on frontiers of housing research, and in the journal’s fiftieth anniversary issue.