“In all lines of investigation … the investigator should be absolutely free to follow the paths of truth, wherever they may lead. Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe the great state of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.” –UW Board of Regents, quoted in Charles McCarthy, The Wisconsin Idea (1912), 28-29.
In the 1890s, a decade marked by labor unrest, the emergence of giant trusts and monopolies, and rising inequality, the UW Board of Regents investigated charges by the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, an ex officio member of the board, that the Director of the UW’s School of Economics, Political Science, and History, Professor Richard T. Ely, was a socialist who was teaching “utopian, impractical, or pernicious doctrines.”
The Regents not only exonerated Ely but, in view of the nationwide attention the dispute had attracted, responded with a resounding defense of academic freedom. The Class of 1910 gifted the UW a commemorative plaque that includes the second sentence of this quotation and has hung on Bascom Hall since 1915.
A study of the controversy published in 1949 by a UW alumus, Theodore Herfurth, is available online at HathiTrust Digital Library.
Source: “The Freedom to Sift and Winnow,” UW College of Letters and Science; UWH-1, 508-527.