Academic Freedom on Trial: 100 Years of Sifting and Winnowing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

By Davis, Bertram H. | Academe, November/December 1998 | Go to article overview

Academic Freedom on Trial: 100 Years of Sifting and Winnowing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison


Davis, Bertram H., Academe


Academic Freedom on Trial: 100 Years of Sifting And Winnowing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

Edited by W. Lee Hansen. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998, 352 pp., $25.00

IT IS HARD TO IMAGINE PLUNGING voluntarily into a word-for-word record of a two-day conference on almost any subject, but anyone interested in academic freedom should have no qualms about Academic Freedom on Trial. It is just such a record, and a valuable one.

The occasion of the conference, held at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in September 1994, was the centenary of a famous academic freedom case involving Richard T. Ely, a distinguished professor of economics at Wisconsin. The conference organizing committee was chaired by the economist W. Lee Hansen, who has also introduced and edited the published volume, and the conference drew most of its participants from the university's faculty, administration, students, and alumni-a mixture that provides some interesting contrasts. The committee added further breadth and depth by ranging widely, even as far as England's University of Nottingham, for an exemplary analytical and historical paper by A. W. Coats on American economists and academic freedom.

Inspired by the ideal of academic freedom, Academic Freedom on Trial candidly explores some of the high and low points in the history of academic freedom at the University of Wisconsin. These include an unsuccessful but highminded effort to proscribe hate speech without running afoul of the First Amendment; unsuccessful attempts by members of the board of regents on two occasions to effect the dismissal of a tenured faculty member (Ely in 1894 and sociologist E. A. Ross in 1910); and the successful and despicable disruption of a student meeting in 1935 by "fraternity row athletes," who dragged some of the participants down a hill and threw them into the lake.

Whatever the specific subject, the pivotal focus throughout Academic Freedom on Trial is a statement attributed to university president Charles Kendall Adams and endorsed by the Wisconsin board of regents in 1894. In endorsing the statement, the board rejected an attempt by the state's superintendent of public instruction, himself an ex officio board member, to compel the dismissal of Ely. As an outspoken and active supporter of the growing labor movement, Ely had become a ready target for entrenched interests.

Boards of trustees often seem unaware of their responsibility to protect academic freedom. In 1894, when the Wisconsin board, after extensive hearings, endorsed President Adams's statement, it fulfilled its obligation admirablythough probably no one could have imagined that the statement would serve the university, with occasional lapses, for more than a century: "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 the truth alone can be found."

The title chosen for the 1994 conference was "100 Years of Sifting and Winnowing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison," and the words "sifting and winnowing," frequently repeated, serve as a guidepost to the more than thirty contributors.

The statement as a whole, in fact, takes on a life of its own-a virtual character that enlivens the book as we follow it through its inception, its casting in bronze by the class of 1910, its dedication and rededication, and even long periods of parental neglect until, almost forgotten, it becomes lost, only to be recovered at last and safely enshrined in the university's administrative empyrean, Bascom Hall.

One could almost wish that every university had something similar to help sustain it-an eloquent and compelling reminder of a vital quality of a university. …

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