AuthorLueders, Bill

On the wall of Bascom Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Madison hangs a plaque that famously proclaims: "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."

These words are taken from an 1894 ruling by the UW Board of Regents in defense of a professor named Richard Ely, then-director of the university's School of Economics, Political Science, and History. But the words did not end up on Bascom Hall, where the university brass is located, at the UW-Madison's instigation. Rather, this happened due to the efforts of others including Fred MacKenzie, managing editor of La Follette's Magazine, now The Progressive, acting on a suggestion from the legendary muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens.

MacKenzie passed this suggestion on to the senior class of 1910's memorial committee, which liked the idea, especially given the Regents' recent censure of a UW-Madison sociology professor for inviting anarchist Emma Goldman to speak to his students. The committee's chair inexpertly fastened the letters to a piece of plywood and had the plaque cast, at a cost of $25.

But, according to a 2019 UW-Madison article, "The Regents rejected the plaque, saying the students had been influenced by radicals." While the plaque "moldered" in the building's basement, committee members launched a pressure campaign that included placards on Madison streetcars, chiding the Regents' stance. Others took up the cause.

"What is there in this declaration that can embarrass this university in the light of day?" asked the Wisconsin State Journal in an editorial, "Let the Regents answer." In 1915, the Regents relented and the plaque was installed, exactly where it hangs today.

The 1894 case involved a complaint lodged against Ely, known for "his progressive views and interest in social reforms and organized labor," by state schools Superintendent Oliver E. Wells. Wells had alleged, in a letter to The Nation, that Ely encouraged strikes and boycotts and taught students socialism and other "vicious theories."

In a four-day trial, the Regents heard testimony from prominent academics including Brown University President E. Benjamin Andrews, who said getting rid of Ely "would be a great blow at freedom of university teaching in general and at the development of political economy in particular." Ely also...

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