You have probably heard of the idea of “academic freedom.” At UW, it has meant that anything that matters to the citizens of the state is worthy of study. Read the plaque to the left of the front door out loud. The plaque symbolizes the seriousness with which the university takes its commitment to the “continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.” 

These words are originally from an 1894 report by the UW Board of Regents in response to one board member’s accusations against Professor Richard Ely. He was one of the leading economists in the country. Ely was accused of teaching socialist doctrines, leading to an extensive investigation and several hearings. The 1894 report exonerated Ely and introduced the concept of academic freedom. It stated that the university should never censor or limit its members’ quest for knowledge.  

Ely was part of a cohort of Christian economists at UW in the early twentieth century. The group also included John R. Commons, Ely’s student and a founder of the American Institute for Christian Sociology. Commons was also a key shaper of the Wisconsin Idea, which we’ll talk about more at our next stop. Ely, for his part, was the founder of an organization called the Christian Social Union, which applied Christian principles to social problems. He advocated for child labor laws and for improved factory conditions.  

Ely and Commons were leading academics in the Social Gospel movement, which sought to apply Christian ethics to the problems of poverty, wealth inequality, and alcoholism, among other issues. Their work at the university made UW a national center for Social Gospel thought. At the same time, Ely and Commons laid the foundation for UW’s Department of Sociology. In their view, the first part of the ten commandments was about loving God, which you should learn about in church. The second part of the ten commandments was about loving your neighbor. They wanted the Department of Sociology to be a place for the academic study of what it means to love your neighbor. At UW, Ely was a staunch advocate of the model of student-run churches introduced by Bascom and encouraged denominational partnerships to influence student life.  

Turn right and head to the edge of the walkway. Look to the wooded area across the street for the next stop.