The Wisconsin Idea in action. Byron Crouse (right), associate dean in the School of Medicine and Public Health at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, meets with Jim Fahey (left), the owner of Praireland Dairy near Belleville, Wisconsin. Crouse has helped to create Co-op Care, a program designed to increase the number of farmers and other rural business owners that have access to affordable health insurance programs with benefits that include preventative services. Photo by Bryce Richter, December 2008. Courtesy of UW–Madison University Communications. 

Rural People and Academic Elites Saved Higher Education Once. They Can Do It Again.

One day during my research, I went looking for historical traces of Hazel E. Kent, a staff member at the University of Wisconsin Agricultural Experiment Station between 1917 and 1919. She worked under Professor Harry Steenbock, the subject of my dissertation, during the early years of his research program on fat-soluble vitamins. In 1925, that program led to the creation of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), the technology transfer office where I work as a historian.

After 1920, Kent all but disappears from the historical record. I did find a Miss Hazel Kent in a 1926 issue of the La Crosse Tribune and Press Leader. She got married to a man in Vermont who had to go straight from the ceremony to a six-month sentence for bootlegging. Not the same Hazel, I think.

Before I left the page, a single-panel comic caught my attention with these lines:

Does Th’ Rooster Envy Th’ Eagle

As He Soars Thru Limitless Space?

Or Th’ Eagle Envy Th’ Rooster,

Who’s a King in His Own Little Place?

The words appear alongside a drawing of a haggard cowboy riding his horse through town, casting a forlorn glance through a window at a comfortable family. A man smokes a pipe with a small child on his lap. A woman, who to 21st-century eyes seems to be staring at her smartphone, more likely holds a book or perhaps some knitting.

The cartoonist, J.R. Williams, conjured these sorts of small-town scenes and country aphorisms in his syndicated strip “Out Our Way” between 1922 and 1957. By the era of biochemists and bootleggers, the cowboy life he depicted had already earned the modifier “bygone” and, in any case, had been mythic from its origins. But as myths tend to do, the fable of the soaring eagle and the strutting rooster resonates across time into today’s political debates over rural resentment towards cultural elites.

A cowboy on horseback peers into a house to see a family at rest. Text: Does Th’ Rooster Envy Th’ Eagle As He Soars Thru Limitless Space? Or Th’ Eagle Envy Th’ Rooster, Who’s a King in His Own Little Place?

J.R. Williams’s comic strip “Out Our Way” as printed in the La Crosse Tribune and Leader Press, December 17, 1926, page 3. Used with permission of the La Crosse Tribune.

Williams reminds us that as we peer across our social chasms, how we conceptualize our sense of belonging matters more than what we perceive on the other side. Academics, environmental scholars in particular, have long pledged to “think globally and act locally,” but as surging populist movements insist that “global” leaders have failed to understand “local” concerns, we must reconsider what local means to us—who it includes, what it avoids, and how our sense of who we are shapes our moral commitments.

In my specific case, as a graduate student in Madison, Wisconsin, local thinking has a lot to do with what we call the “Wisconsin Idea,” an ethic inscribed in quotations all across campus. A plaque on the front of the administration building, Bascom Hall, displays an 1894 statement from the Board of Regents that “whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere we believe the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.” Nearby, two more memorials, a historical marker and a commemorative rock, exhibit University President Charles Van Hise’s 1905 insistence that “I shall never be content until the beneficent influence of the university reaches every family of the state.” Both sentiments were later written into the statutory mission of the University of Wisconsin System with a mandate “to extend knowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of its campuses” and the assertion that “basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth.”

Text: "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."

The plaque on the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Bascom Hall excerpting the 1894 statement from the Board of Regents. Photo by Spencer 9, July 2007.

This tripartite tradition of academic freedom, public service, and university-state cooperation can be difficult to reconcile into a conceptual whole. On one hand, a commitment to public service asks that higher education and government join together. On the other, academic freedom protects university faculty from political interference. The first imagines a campus as large as the state, the second a campus shielded from it. They seem to entail two distinct ways to “act locally.”

To reconcile the conflict, the Wisconsin Idea must be defined not by the purity of its principles but by the historical confrontations that produced it. The pre-eminent experts on the university’s history locate the roots of the Wisconsin Idea in the 1870s with the social gospel theology of University President John Bascom. His commitment to truth-seeking and moral uplift inspired the two most famous students to graduate during his tenure, Van Hise and the great catalyst of Wisconsin’s Progressive Party, Robert M. Lafollette.

Bascom’s presidency also witnessed fierce contests over the future of his university. Farmers lamented that faculty recruited from the east coast were turning their state’s favored sons into ministers, professors, and lawyers, not agriculturists. Businessmen, in particular those who sat on the university’s Board of Regents, resented Bascom’s implication that their commercial interests corrupted the purity of his academic pursuits. These tensions fueled multiple attempts in the 1880s to revoke the university’s federal land grant and create a separate university devoted to agricultural instruction.

Rural resentment is nothing new. Neither are those who exploit that resentment.

The crisis ended when the farmers and lawyers among the regents instituted off-season courses to train farmers. Madison faculty with elite, international educations began teaching rural Wisconsinites, some of them illiterate, about how academic science could improve their commercial trade. A few years later, the university formed a College of Agriculture on the Madison campus. Its first dean, William A. Henry, hired faculty who merged fundamental research with practical instruction. Their contributions, including the Babcock butterfat test and the cold-curing of cheese, saved the dairy industry twice as much money as the annual budget for the entire university.

By 1916, the year Steenbock finished his Ph.D. and Hazel Kent was working on her B.S. in home economics, state appropriations for their university had increased exponentially, including unrestricted funds for basic research. Scientific agriculture had turned Wisconsin into the Dairy State and convinced a generation of farmers that an ivory tower institution could serve their sons—and even their daughters—after all. That gave Van Hise the political backing to lead a consolidated campus that could both search for truth and extend its beneficent influence with no “Wisconsin A&M” looming a hundred miles away.

This centralized education has shaped Wisconsin’s identity. Consider the 2015 New York Times interactive map visualizing which zip codes rooted for each N.C.A.A. football team. Across the mottled patchwork of school colors, support for some teams concentrated around a metropolitan area, while others captured regional swathes of the Great Plains or the Pacific Northwest. Wisconsin, however, stands out in solid red, the edges of its fandom the borders of the state. The Times reporters call it “Deep Devotion in Wisconsin,” noting that no other school and no other state reached the same consistent depth of support. The reasons have less to do with Rose Bowl appearances than with a century and a half of farmers, scientists, lawyers, and philosophers all sharing the same alma mater.

A man in a "Badger Pride" t-shirt smiles at the camera in front of an agricultural background at sunset.

Rocky Biegel, owner of Dempze Cranberry Company, looks over mid-season cranberry marshes growing at his 80-acre farm near Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin. Biegel propagates several cranberry varieties— including Sundance, Ruby Star and HyRed—bred at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and licensed by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF). Photo by Jeff Miller, July 2015. Courtesy of UW-Madison University Communications.

Of course, making this point through football speaks as much to the current challenges facing higher education as it does to its historical successes. Passion for sports teams grows ever stronger while state funding drops and competition for resources becomes fiercer. At UW-Madison, appropriations from the state legislature now make up just 15% of the total budget, a full two-thirds of which now comes from federal and other outside grants. As a result, the university now markets itself as a global leader that “extend[s] our educational mission to Wisconsin and the world.” Students hear less about the Wisconsin Idea and more about how the “Wisconsin Experience” can fulfill their high expectations for college life. Both initiatives aim to keep UW-Madison competitive within an international marketplace for faculty and students.

These specific figures apply to my school, but all institutions of higher education face similar challenges. In these headwinds, we will all rely on the intellectual traditions that shaped our history and geography. Stanford has its famous affiliation with Silicon Valley, and MIT its Route 128 technological corridor. Cornell and Syracuse are woven into Upstate New York while NYU sits in the heart of New York City. Other schools like Georgetown and George Washington, or Northwestern and the University of Chicago, have cultural identities associated with specific areas in their urban centers.

The Wisconsin Idea emerged from years of strife followed by decades of constructing a sense of common belonging based on trust.

Thinking locally means something quite different at each of these universities. None of us can, or should, ignore our intellectual traditions. But solving the problems of today will mean understanding those traditions as the product of human struggle, not as distant, memorialized myths. Defending the principles of higher learning has never been easy. Consider, for example, the Wisconsin farmer who in 1882 described men with a “high degree” as “these fungi [who] are the kings over us, as they claim, by divine right. How shall we get rid of these bacteria?” Rural resentment is nothing new. Neither are those who exploit that resentment.

Then, as now, understanding and addressing such concerns will demand that we think locally when we act globally. The activists who asked the reverse meant that to confront global climate change and inequality, we should recycle in our homes, volunteer in our communities, and remind our children that starving people in other countries would love to have those garden-grown vegetables they refuse to eat. And yet, academics like me can no longer deny that our careers force us to act globally. We travel to international conferences, distribute our writing through transnational networks, and search for jobs in far-flung cities thousands of miles from the schools that trained us. Only by “thinking locally” can we keep in mind those old buildings funded by generations of taxes and tuition that allow us to pursue our global careers.

Does this mean we should teach more introductory classes or offer more practical training like the short courses that saved the University of Wisconsin? Perhaps, but we do a lot of that already. The lesson of the Wisconsin Idea is not that history repeats but that our entrenched political problems demand novelty, adaptation, compromise, and humility. The Wisconsin Idea emerged from years of strife followed by decades of constructing a sense of common belonging based on trust—a sense of what it means to be local. Preserving higher education for the next century will mean thinking while we act, reconstituting our public, common cause in the process.

A portrait of a young woman. The caption reads: Hazel E. Kent, Madison, Home Economics, Thesis–Studies of Pectin

Hazel E. Kent in her senior class year book, The Badger, vol. 32 (1918).

In my own work, that starts by paying more attention to Hazel Kent. I studied Harry Steenbock for almost five years before I noticed Kent’s name on a scientific article they wrote together. He left behind boxes of archival papers in the basement of a library named after him. She shows up a handful of times in yearbooks and newspapers. Kent left Wisconsin in 1919 to teach at the Monticello Female Seminary in Illinois. After that, she might have become a bootlegger’s wife or maybe moved west and became the Hazel Kent I found named in the Los Angeles Times as an educator. Either way, Steenbock replaced her with graduate students with specialized biochemistry training, advanced degrees, and who pursued academic careers. Those students, not Hazel Kent, shared credit on the vitamin D research that marked Steenbock’s most important contributions to science. Those assistants helped make Steenbock famous.

Hazel Kent, in other words, did not matter. At least not according to how scholars measure success, or by those standards that politicians set for public universities. Her accomplishments neither earned her tenure nor fulfilled the workforce needs of employers. That anonymity can teach us how to think locally when we act globally. She fails to provoke the typical envy of our modern-day eagles and roosters—the ivory tower elites and the resentful taxpayers, the out-of-touch establishment and the elegiac hillbillies—because she represents instead the millions of muted voices who worked, studied, and cared for the universities that gave us our livelihoods. Their beneficent influence reached us. We should return the favor.

Featured image: Byron Crouse (right), associate dean in the School of Medicine and Public Health at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, meets with Jim Fahey (left), the owner of Praireland Dairy near Belleville, Wisconsin. Crouse has helped to create Co-op Care, a program designed to increase the number of farmers and other rural business owners that have access to affordable health insurance programs with benefits that include preventative services. Photo by Bryce Richter, December 2008. Courtesy of UW–Madison University Communications. 

Kevin Walters works as a historian and Strategic Research Coordinator at the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), the academic patenting arm of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he is also a Ph.D. candidate in History. His dissertation is an intellectual biography of WARF’s founder, Professor of Biochemistry Harry Steenbock (1886–1967). He would like to thank Patrick Brenzel, Gwen Drury, Carl Gulbrandsen, Eric Sandgren, Jeanan Yasiri-Moe, and Tom Zinnen for informing his thinking in this essay. Website. TwitterContact.

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