In April of 2016, we kicked off our 80th anniversary year with a blog overview of the history of the University of Wisconsin Press. This post delves further into the Press’s history, highlighting our long connection with the Wisconsin Idea.
The Wisconsin Idea is usually attributed to former UW President Charles Van Hise, who in a 1904 speech declared, “I shall never be content until the beneficent influence of the University reaches every home in the state.”
Later this month, we’ll be publishing a new book by UW-Milwaukee historian David Hoeveler. In John Bascom and the Origins of the Wisconsin Idea, Hoeveler shows the even earlier beginnings of the Wisconsin Idea in the tenure of John Bascom as president of the University of Wisconsin from 1874 to 1887. Bascom outlined a social gospel that called for an expanded role for state governments and universities as agencies of moral improvement. His ideas deeply influenced a generation of students at the University of Wisconsin, including Van Hise and Robert La Follette. (We’ve invited Professor Hoeveler to blog here on June 30.)
As UW president from 1903 to 1918, Van Hise created the university’s extension division (known today as the University of Wisconsin-Extension), which oversaw summer courses and other programs that brought university knowledge directly to state citizens. These programs took, and continue to take, many forms, and reached out in areas ranging from the arts to agriculture. In the 1940s, Robert Gard founded the Wisconsin Idea Theater and worked for decades to foster theater arts and creative writing in small communities. UWP published his influential book Grassroots Theater: A Search for Regional Arts in America. A current Extension program is the Master Cheesemaker certificate and brand offered by the Center for Dairy Research, highlighted in the UWP book The Master Cheesemakers of Wisconsin.
During the early twentieth century, President Van Hise also took advantage of his longtime friendship with classmate Robert M. La Follette, who had become governor of Wisconsin. Together they forged closer ties between the university and state government; faculty experts consulted with legislators to help draft many influential and groundbreaking laws, including the nation’s first workers’ compensation legislation, tax reforms, and the public regulation of utilities. These activities would not formally be described as “The Wisconsin Idea” until 1912, when Charles McCarthy described the philosophy in a book by that name. By that time, Wisconsin had developed a national reputation for legislative innovation.
The University of Wisconsin Press published numerous books by these influential University of Wisconsin faculty and policy experts. John R. Commons was one of the nation’s foremost writers and lecturers on political economy and sociology. UWP published his books Institutional Economics, Legal Foundations of Capitalism, and Economics of Collective Action, as well as his autobiography Myself. Commons drafted legislation establishing Wisconsin’s worker’s compensation program, the first of its kind in the United States.
A fellow political economist at the University of Wisconsin was Richard Ely. Considered the “father of land economics,” he published his book Land Economics with UWP and founded our journal of the same name, now in its 91st year.
Edwin E. Witte was a Wisconsin farm boy who, like Commons and Ely, became a professor of economics at the University of Wisconsin. On the faculty from 1933 to 1957, he was a profoundly influential contributor to public policy and the principal author of the federal Social Security Act. Indeed, he is considered “the father of Social Security.” UWP published his books Social Security Perspectives and The Development of the Social Security Act.
Over time, the Wisconsin Idea has come to signify more broadly the university’s commitment to public service. For eighty years, the University of Wisconsin Press has published useful books for Wisconsin, ranging from Lake Michigan in Motion and A Field Guide to Wisconsin Grasses to 9XM Talking: WHA Radio and the Wisconsin Idea. And, we have continued to document the history, culture, heritage, and voices of our state. Learn more about our regionally themed books by browsing our e-catalog, Wisconsin in Print.