In 1981, a colloquium titled “The Wisconsin Idea” was held at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in honor of professor Carlisle P. Runge’s retirement. Runge’s friend of 45 years, state Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Heffernan, would memorialize Runge with his passing in 1984 as “the leading exponent of the Wisconsin Idea.”
Back in 1904, UW President Charles Van Hise had first summed up that idea: “the borders of the University are the borders of the state.” The Wisconsin Idea further has been defined as the policy in our state that fosters public universities’ contributions “to the government in the forms of serving in office, offering advice about public policy, providing information and exercising technical skill, in the forms of doing research directed at solving problems that are important to the state and conducting outreach activities.” Its second aspect is “to ensure well-constructed legislation aimed at benefiting the greatest number of people,” with the “search for truth” at the core of its mission.
When Gov. Scott Walker proposed that the Wisconsin Idea be “eliminated” and later “amended,” citizens balked because the Wisconsin Idea is likely the greatest element of social planning in our state’s whole “post-Native” period.
During the Progressive Era, led by Robert M. “Fighting Bob” La Follette Sr. — who served as Wisconsin governor and later a U.S. senator — proponents of the Wisconsin Idea saw our state as “the laboratory for democracy.” Policies such as Social Security, negative income tax, child and adult labor laws, family assistance, state taxes, progressive taxation, and integration of minorities were born or fostered here. La Follette was long a Republican but also suggested to Democratic presidents what U.S. domestic policies should be. His ideas won the day; many are still with us.
Carl Runge earned an Army Bronze Star during World War II. After attending Oxford for a year and graduating from the University of Wisconsin Law School in 1948, he became assistant U.S. attorney for the Western District of Wisconsin. He later served as an assistant U.S. secretary of defense, then directed UW’s Center for Public Policy and Administration (eventually renamed the La Follette School of Public Affairs). I worked for professor Runge as a full-time clerk-typist; he was one of the most calm, informed and fair-minded educators imaginable. He exemplified how a university administrator should educate his or her students and aid citizens by sharing knowledge gained through experience and research.
In a book I edited, “Spirit of Wisconsin,” educators Tamara Horstman-Riphahn and Ronald S. Rochon wrote: “In the shadow of national and international tragedy and war, it would be easy to close our doors, barricade state lines, and foster suspicions of the ‘other’… . Many times we strive to support and nurture those to whom we feel devoted, but in order to survive in the existing interdependent structure of our societies, we must also contemplate the ways in which we open our lives and provide opportunities for old and new alike.”
Then-Gov. Jim Doyle wrote in his foreword to that book, “Challenges still remain, but I have faith in Wisconsin — in its people and their tremendous spirit ... . Let’s continue working together to keep our great state moving forward.” La Follette, Runge and others have given so much to Wisconsin and the world, and they took so little in return. The people of Wisconsin owe a lot to our universities and the world around us, but the world owes a lot to the Wisconsin Idea. On Wisconsin!