The La Follette School began as the Center for the Study of Public Policy and Administration at UW–Madison in 1967. The center, founded by Professor Clara Penniman, was part of the Department of Political Science. 

In 1983, the Wisconsin Legislature formally separated the center from the Department of Political Science and named it the Robert M. La Follette Institute of Public Affairs after the former Wisconsin governor, U.S. senator, and proponent of progressivism. Professor Dennis Dresang was its founding director.  

In 1999, UW–Madison’s Center for Development became part of the La Follette Institute, which was renamed the La Follette School of Public Affairs. At the same time, the School began offering Master of Public Affairs (MPA) degrees and Master of International Public Affairs (MIPA) degrees.  

La Follette School faculty, alumni, staff, and students pride themselves in the continued practice of the Wisconsin Idea, UW–Madison’s century-long commitment to extend its expertise beyond the campus borders.  

In the early decades of the 20th century, while Wisconsin’s biologists were discovering the major vitamin groups to improve the nutrition of cows, Wisconsin’s social scientists were creating Social Security, Unemployment Compensation, Workers Compensation, and other programs so the general society could benefit from the gains made possible by a rapidly changing free market industrial structure. These social scientists worked closely with political leaders like Robert M. La Follette to help enact legislation that embodied the best social science research.  

Today, La Follette School faculty, alumni, students, and staff extend the practice of the Wisconsin Idea across the state and around the world through research and outreach that inspires evidence-based policymaking, impacts society’s pressing problems, and advances the public good.  

The School’s curriculum continues to expand, including an Undergraduate Certificate in Public Policy Program launched in 2019 and an Undergraduate Certificate in Health Policy, launched in 2021.  


1967–1982: Center for Public Policy and Administration, Department of Political Science

1983–1998: La Follette Institute of Public Affairs (1983 Act 27, Wis Stat 36.25(23))

1999-present: La Follette School of Public Affairs

1999: UW–Madison Center for Development joined La Follette School

1999: School began Master of Public Affairs (MPA) and Master of International Public Affairs (MIPA) programs

2016: U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl (ret.) donates $1.5 million to create Herb Kohl Public Service Research Competition

2019: U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl (ret.) donates $10 million (largest gift in School history) to create Kohl Initiative

2019: Undergraduate certificate in public policy program launched

2021: Undergraduate certificate in health policy program launched

Observatory Hill Office Building

Most La Follette School offices are in one of the oldest buildings on campus—Observatory Hill Office Building, 1225 Observatory Drive. The La Follette School’s Outreach Team is in Sterling Hall, 475 N. Charter Street.  

The Observatory Hill Office Building was built by Loring Guild, a Kenosha dry goods merchant who owned a store on the Capitol Square, in about 1854. The Guilds lived in the house while their son, Edward Butts, attended what was then the Wisconsin State University.  

Professor Daniel Read of the Normal Department then lived in the house until 1866, when UW–Madison purchased it as part of an expansion to include lands for the Agricultural School in keeping with provisions of the Land Grant Act.  

From 1867 to 1878, the house was the first official residence of the University’s presidents. Robert M. La Follette finished his undergraduate work in the parlor during President John Bascom’s senior philosophy course. When the Washburn Observatory was built in 1878, the house became the observatory director’s residence. 

In 1959, the University began using the building for office space, housing a variety of units until the La Follette Institute of Public Affairs (later the La Follette School) took occupancy in 1985.