Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs

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One of the longest and deepest traditions surrounding the University of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Idea signifies a general principle: that education should influence people’s lives beyond the boundaries of the classroom. Synonymous with Wisconsin for more than a century, this “Idea” has become the guiding philosophy of university outreach efforts in Wisconsin and throughout the world.

Today, more than ever, faculty, students, and staff at the Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs practice the Wisconsin Idea across the state and around the world through research, teaching, and outreach. The school’s multidisciplinary emphasis on service and scholarship allows it to take on problems of public policy and governance such as the design and management of social welfare programs, international currency and trade, and public management and finance.

The genesis of the Wisconsin Idea is often attributed to former UW President Charles Van Hise, who in a 1905 address declared, “I shall never be content until the beneficent influence of the University reaches every family of the state.” That statement was formally described as the Wisconsin Idea by Charles McCarthy in his 1912 book by the same name.

The Wisconsin Idea is deeply rooted in the La Follette School. As Wisconsin’s governor from 1901 to 1906, the school's namesake worked closely with Van HIse – UW president from 1903 to 1918 – to ground legislation on thorough research and faculty involvement. 

Classmates at UW, La Follette and Van Hise also were deeply influenced by the university’s president – John Bascom, who believed that service to the state was the school’s moral obligation. 

In 2012, the La Follette School’s Spring Symposium offered a discussion about the history of the Wisconsin Idea and its relationship to public policy, with specific examples of how UW-Madison initiatives shaped state, national, and international policy and practice.

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