Wisconsin Idea

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The Wisconsin Idea is a philosophy embraced by the University of Wisconsin, which holds that the boundaries of the university should be the boundaries of the state, and that research conducted at the University of Wisconsin should be applied to solve problems and improve health, quality of life, the environment and agriculture for all citizens of Wisconsin.

For more than a century, the university has been guided by the Wisconsin Idea, a tradition first stated by UW President Charles Van Hise in 1904. Van Hise declared that he would "never be content until the beneficent influence of the university reaches every family in the state." Today that belief permeates the university's work, fostering close working relationships within the state, throughout the country and around the world. (University of Wisconsin: The Wisconsin Idea)

This Progressive-era policy applied the expertise of the state's university to social legislation that benefited all the state's citizens; it led to classic programs such as regulation of utilities, workers' compensation, tax reform, and university extension services; sometimes expressed in the maxim that "the boundaries of the university are the boundaries of the state." From the Wisconsin Historical Society's, Dictionary of Wisconsin History.

The Wisconsin Idea, in United States History, also refers to a series of political reforms of the late 19th century and early 20th century whose strongest advocate was Robert M. La Follette, Sr., governor of (1901-1906) and senator from (1905-1925) Wisconsin .

These proposed reforms, all of which were eventually adopted, included:

  • Primary elections, allowing the rank-and-file members of a political party to choose its nominees rather than caucuses usually dominated by political bosses
  • Workers' compensation, allowing workers injured on the job to receive a fixed payment in compensation for their injuries and related expenses rather than forcing them to go to court against their employers, which at the time was extremely difficult and had little realistic chance of success
  • State regulation of railroads in addition to the federal regulation imposed by the Interstate Commerce Commission
  • Direct election of United States Senators as opposed to the original method of their selection by the state legislatures, eventually ratified as the Seventeenth Amendment.
  • "Progressive" taxation, where the wealthier pay a higher rate of tax than the less-affluent, made possible on the federal level in part by the adoption of the Sixteenth Amendment

Adoption of these reforms marked the high point of the Progressive Era.


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