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The Wisconsin Idea and eugenics: conflicting sides of Charles Van Hise

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The Wisconsin Idea and eugenics: conflicting sides of Charles Van Hise


Illustration by Kay Reynolds.

A proposed university plaque would acknowledge the former UW president’s influence in a 20th-century movement that prompted sterilization, discrimination, and genocide.

Charles Van Hise (1857-1918) is an important but controversial figure in the history of the University of Wisconsin. He co-authored the Wisconsin Idea, a one-sentence ideology that has helped guide the development of our state for decades. He was a prominent figure in the Progressive movement, an important political chapter in Wisconsin’s history.

However, Van Hise was also a eugenicist, who believed the human race should use selective breeding and forced sterilization to eliminate “inferior” traits from society. Eugenics is a misinformed extrapolation of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, applying “survival of the fittest” to humans as well as plants and animals. 

A new plaque is set to be installed in the lobby of Van Hise Hall (1220 Linden Drive) at the UW-Madison, addressing the former university president’s support of eugenics, pending approval by UW-Madison Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin.

The plaque is a result of years of collaboration between Kacie Lucchini Butcher, director of the UW-Madison Center for Campus History, and the Committee on Disability Access and Inclusion (CDAI), an advisory body of faculty, staff, and students that operates as part of UW-Madison’s shared governance system. In 2021, Lucchini Butcher gave a presentation to the CDAI on Van Hise and eugenics at UW-Madison. After her presentation, the CDAI reached out to Lucchini Butcher about working together to find a way to address Van Hise’s history on campus.

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Lucchini Butcher and the CDAI worked closely with UW administration and the Madison community, hosting multiple public engagement sessions between 2022 and 2023 to raise awareness of the issue and collect public opinion. They finally decided to design a plaque, which Lucchini Butcher describes as the “first step for the CDAI and for UW on confronting the legacy of Van Hise and eugenics.”

The proposed language for the plaque reads:

“Charles Van Hise was a professor at UW-Madison from 1879 to 1903, after which he served as its president until 1918. As president, Van Hise offered the best-known articulation of the Wisconsin Idea. He was also an advocate of eugenics, a set of beliefs and practices that has justified discrimination against marginalized people deemed “unfit” based on individual and group characteristics and identities. The impact of eugenics can be seen not only in the genocides of the 20th century but also, for example, in discriminatory immigration practices and in involuntary sterilization laws. As UW- Madison strives to serve the people of Wisconsin and the world, the legacy of Van Hise reminds us that we must acknowledge and grapple with all parts of our past and all parts of our present to move forward together.”

Now that the plaque proposal has passed through many channels for approval, including the Campus Planning Committee, Mnookin has the final say in whether or not the plaque will be installed in Van Hise Hall. The proposed plaque language was sent to Mnookin in April. UW-Madison spokesperson John Lucas tells Tone Madison he doesn’t “yet have timing updates on this project, which is still in the planning process.” A CDAI timeline indicated that the approval process has been delayed due to Mnookin’s travel schedule.

Despite Van Hise’s role in promoting the eugenics movement in Wisconsin, the narrative surrounding him, crafted in part by UW, is overwhelmingly positive. His biography on the UW Archives and Record Management website describes him as having “the distinctions of receiving the first PhD degree granted by the University of Wisconsin (1892, geology), being the first UW alumnus to head the university, and being the longest serving leader of the university.”

Only after clicking on a link at the bottom of UW’s Van Hise’s biography do you find a  presentation by the University Committee on Disability Access and Inclusion on Van Hise’s involvement with the eugenics movement. Van Hise’s important role in UW-Madison’s history and his ugly eugenicist beliefs pose difficult but familiar questions about how to handle terrible truths about Wisconsin history. 

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The eugenics movement at UW-Madison

Modern eugenics emerged in the 1880s, and by the early 1900s, the U.S. saw the creation of several national organizations promoting eugenics; the Race Betterment Foundation was founded in 1911 by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (using the Kellogg Cereal fortune). Leon J. Cole—founder of the UW Genetics Department—was also a featured speaker at the First National Conference on Race Betterment in 1914. 

The eugenics movement in the U.S. in the early 1900s advocated for forced sterilization, institutionalizing the mentally “feeble,” and limiting immigration depending on race and health. The American Eugenics Society had hoped to sterilize one-tenth of the U.S. population in order to prevent “heredity degeneration.”

In 1910 Van Hise published an essay titled “The Conservation Of Natural Resources In The United States,” in which he wrote that “human defectives should no longer be allowed to propagate the race.” By human defectives, Van Hise might have been talking about African Americans, Native Peoples, immigrants, “wayward” women, the mentally or physically disabled, or any number of Americans with traits seen as undesirable by society in the early 20th century.

Van Hise would undoubtedly have been in support of a massive sterilization effort like the one advocated for by the American Eugenics Society. Van Hise wrote, “we know enough about eugenics so that if that knowledge were applied, the defective classes would disappear within a generation.”

That same year, Leon J. Cole founded the Department of Experimental Breeding at UW-Madison, which would eventually become known as the Genetics Department; it was the first of its kind in the country. The department was intended to focus its efforts on improving Wisconsin agriculture with genetics. However, in the early 1900s U.S., the eugenics movement was taking off, and scientific methods applied to breeding animals were already being applied to the human race.

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As Van Hise wrote in “The Conservation Of Natural Resources,” “breeding has been long practiced with reference to producing high-grade stock. Until recently man has given very little attention to the matter as far as his own race is concerned.”

Cole also founded the nation’s first eugenics club at UW in 1912, which hosted bi-monthly lectures from eugenics experts. Multiple classes teaching eugenics were available: “Heredity and eugenics,” taught by Michael F. Guyer, addressed “the laws of heredity, their application to man, and the importance of the biological principles underlying race-betterment.” 

Adolf Hitler’s genocide of the Jewish people in the 1930s and ’40s was, in fact, heavily inspired by the eugenics movement in the United States. Hitler is quoted saying, “now that we know the laws of heredity, it is possible to a large extent to prevent unhealthy and severely handicapped beings from coming into the world. I have studied with interest the laws of several American states concerning prevention of reproduction by people whose progeny would, in all probability, be of no value or be injurious to the racial stock.”

UW-Madison played a significant role in the development of the eugenics movement in the United States. The university continued to teach eugenics until 1948, with courses promoting its theories in the departments of sociology, criminology, genetics, and zoology.

Progressivism and eugenics 

Both Cole and Van Hise were intellectuals in the American Progressive movement. Progressives wanted to reimagine the American economic and political landscape. They pushed for safer workplaces, labor laws, and a more democratic government. Wisconsin, and UW-Madison in particular, and were considered models of progressive reform and intellectualism in the early 1900s.

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During the Progressive movement and Robert La Follete’s term as governor of Wisconsin from 1901 to 1906, reforms were passed to tax railroad tycoons, break up monopolies, and give voters the power to choose primary candidates with direct primary elections. 

Progressivism and eugenics were closely related movements; in fact, eugenics was a Progressive cause. Chris McAllester, graduate student in the UW Genetics Department, researched the history of eugenics in that same department.

“Everyone in the Progressive movement, to first approximation, was pro-eugenics,” says McAllester.

Proponents of eugenics were overwhelmingly Progressives, including prominent members of the suffragist movement. The movements believed their shared goals of social and economic reform were directly tied to the success of the “race.” Progressives believed that the government should encourage selective breeding to strengthen favorable traits, and eliminate “inferior” ones. 

Many Progressive initiatives used theories of eugenicists to justify government policy. When passing labor reforms, like a fixed minimum wage, Progressive economists agreed with their critics, in that instituting a minimum wage could cause job losses (a claim that has since been disproven), but they were unconcerned. For eugenicists, job loss caused by minimum wages was beneficial to society, as it fulfilled the eugenic goal of expelling the “unemployable” from the labor force.

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Eugenicists saw their beliefs transformed into policy in many states. In 1913, Wisconsin Governor Francis McGovern passed Chapter 693, a statute that gave the state the power to sterilize inmates of mental and penal institutions. It further required the presentation of a medical certificate declaring mental competency when applying for a marriage license. 

Between 1913 and 1963, Wisconsin forcibly sterilized 1,823 “defective” individuals with the authority of Chapter 693, before it was finally repealed in 1978. Those targeted by Wisconsin’s sterilization statutes were people with criminal records, mental illnesses, intellectual disabilities, and epilepsy. The majority of those sterilized, 79%, were women, often because they were deemed “sexually promiscuous.”

Eugenics and the Wisconsin Idea

Van Hise played an important role in the passage of the sterilization and marriage statutes, using the ideology of the Wisconsin Idea: state government should work in collaboration with the university for the betterment of the state.

According to McAllester’s research, Van Hise “vocally advocated for eugenic laws in the State of Wisconsin as a part of the ‘Wisconsin Idea’ whereby university experts informed the public and legislators of relevant science.” 

The writings, speeches, classes, and clubs at UW that promoted eugenics all contributed to a racist, sexist, and ableist state consciousness in the 1900s, resulting in almost 2,000 forced sterilizations. Even after the sterilization and marriage statutes were repealed, eugenics teachings continued to influence healthcare in Wisconsin.

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Doctors in Wisconsin, influenced by eugenics teachings and former state policies, continued to sterilize patients without their knowledge or consent after Chapter 693 was repealed. Native Americans accused the Indian Health Service of forcibly sterilizing at least 25% of all Native women between the ages of 15 and 44 in the 1970s.

The eugenics movement eventually lost scientific and social credibility. Traits that the eugenics movement targeted for elimination from the gene pool—like “criminality,” “promiscuity,” or the generic phrase “feeblemindedness”—had little genetic basis. In other words, you cannot inherit a tendency to break the law. The eugenics movement generally ignored the possibility that outside factors like economic status or education level are more likely to influence the development of those traits.

Now more than a century after Van Hise’s death, the legacy of his writing and the movement he promoted, as well as the building carrying his name, continue to loom large over UW’s campus.  

Discussing Van Hise today

After Lucchini Butcher received emails from Madison residents asking her to address Van Hise’s legacy, she knew it was a project she had to undertake. Lucchini Butcher has given 10 to 12 presentations a year on Van Hise and eugenics since 2021. After she presented for the CDAI, members of the committee helped her get the ball rolling.

Lucchini Butcher says that her team never encountered opposition to addressing Van Hise’s support of eugenics, just debate over whether a plaque was the best option. Lucchini Butcher says that a plaque is the right first step for Van Hise Hall, as it achieves her team’s goal of education.

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“Renaming is very controversial right now. So [when] lots of people hear that there is going to be a renaming, they immediately are like ‘No, you’re erasing this person, you’re erasing their legacy,’” Lucchini Butcher says. “And what you get is a huge controversy for a few years, where people are really upset—lots of op-eds, it’s everywhere in the newspaper—the building gets renamed. And then, in four years, nobody remembers.”

McAllester says the best way to address difficult histories is to provide people with access to detailed information about the past.

“To say Van Hise or Cole were eugenicists is different than saying ‘Cole wrote articles in which he argued that philanthropists shouldn’t spend their money on […] improving the lives of people who are having difficulty, or [experiencing] homeless[ness], and instead should be spending their money on advocating for eugenic sterilization, because that would be more effective,” McAllester says.

Although information about Van Hise and eugenics at UW-Madison has been accessible for decades, many people have never heard about this aspect of university history. At every presentation Lucchini Butcher has given on Van Hise, there are always multiple people in the audience who walk away shocked.

“The CDAI and the Center for Campus History have been working for years to raise awareness so that we can get a sense of urgency on doing something around campus,” says Lucchini Butcher. “Why 2023? Why isn’t the plaque up yet? The unsexy answer is that the university is a bureaucratic institution, and nothing happens quickly, or as quickly as we want.”

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Lucchini Butcher says she hopes that the plaque will do what renaming won’t: educate future generations of UW students, and start conversations about how to reckon with abhorrent truths about the histories of our communities.






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Wisconsin

Thousands of Wisconsin high schools students will be directly admitted to UW schools for 2025

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Thousands of Wisconsin high schools students will be directly admitted to UW schools for 2025


Universities of Wisconsin schools will soon be offering admission to tens of thousands of Wisconsin high school seniors without receiving applications.

It’s the first class of students to benefit from the Direct Admit Wisconsin program, an effort launched in December to boost enrollment at UW campuses.

Participating school districts shared students’ grade point average and course credits directly with UW System administration after their junior year of high school. The new program, which launched in December, identifies whether a student qualifies for direct admission to any of the 10 participating campuses.

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System President Jay Rothman said Wednesday that acceptance emails will be sent to students starting next week and will continue into September.

“These students have already demonstrated through their junior year of high school that they have the ability to succeed at one of our universities, and to put themselves on a path to a better life and to a better career,” Rothman said.

He said around 50,000 students across 330 high schools were eligible for direct admissions program, adding that “tens of thousands” will receive an offer in coming weeks. Rothman noted that each university has its own admissions requirements, but a number of students can expect to be directly admitted to multiple schools.

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UW system enrollment has steadily declined over the past decade. Historically, 32 percent of the state’s high school grads have enrolled at UW schools immediately after graduation. That fell to about 27 percent in 2020.

Looking to the future, Rothman said direct admissions could change the way UW schools approach recruiting students. He said university leaders view direct admissions as “a new pathway, but not the only pathway” for admittance.

“There will be the traditional application process,” he said. “But our hope is that this will allow us to connect with more students and have the opportunity to discuss with them why college may be a good fit for them, how they can be helped through a financial aid package, and really try to reach those students who would not have otherwise reached out to us.”

More than half of the state’s public high schools participated in the first year of the direct admissions program, according to Rothman. He said many of the districts that declined did not use one of the three student information systems accepted by the program. He said the UW administration is already working to add another system to the program to allow more districts to participate.

UW-Eau Claire, UW-La Crosse and UW-Madison will not be accepting students through the Direct Admit program. Rothman said participation is up to each campus, but the schools will have the opportunity to sign on to the program in the future.

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“Each of our universities is unique,” Rothman said. “They have different approaches to enrollment and so forth, and we wanted them to have the flexibility that they need to best serve the students that they enroll.”

Students that receive direct admission to one or more UW schools will be asked to provide basic demographic information, which campuses they’re interested in attending and their high school transcript.

Rothman said university staff will then help students identify which university and degree program may be the best fit and what financial aid may be available to them.



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Eye Opener: Kamala Harris holds her first rally in Wisconsin

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Eye Opener: Kamala Harris holds her first rally in Wisconsin


Eye Opener: Kamala Harris holds her first rally in Wisconsin – CBS News

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President Biden is set to deliver a primetime address tonight as Vice President Kamala Harris holds her first rally as a 2024 presidential candidate before a raucous Wisconsin crowd. Also, the director of the Secret Service resigns amid bipartisan outrage over the assassination attempt against former President Trump. All that and all that matters in today’s Eye Opener.

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‘Wisconsin Media Row’ delivered local, affordable RNC coverage

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‘Wisconsin Media Row’ delivered local, affordable RNC coverage


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The recently wrapped Republican National Convention in Milwaukee rolled out the red carpet (literally!) for local Wisconsin media outlets — the first arrangement of its kind at a national political convention.

And by most accounts, “Wisconsin Media Row” was a success.

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Over the four-day nominating event, delegates and elected officials — most of them from Wisconsin — made their way to the western concourse of the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena where they found a bustling collection of the state’s newspaper, radio, TV and online journalists. 

Each of the 24 participating outlets paid $125, and the RNC provided wifi, electricity, tables, chairs and signage. The RNC designed a “Wisconsin Media Row” logo featured prominently on the arena marquee and directed delegates and surrogates to the space. Navy blue pipe-and-curtain dividers emblazoned with the RNC 2024 logo, a central suite of comfy couches, and the splash of red carpeting really tied the space together.

A man looks at a laptop at a table next to a blue wall with "Wisconsin Media Row" and "RNC2024" on it.
Wisconsin Watch statehouse bureau chief Matthew DeFour organized Wisconsin Media Row at the 2024 Republican National Convention. The idea began with DeFour’s attempt to create a similar area at the Democratic National Convention in 2020 before COVID hit. (Jack Kelly / Wisconsin Watch)

U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman, who represents conservative parts of central and eastern Wisconsin, said it was “a cool sort of thing” that he could do an interview with Milwaukee’s 101.7 The Truth, a station with which he had never interacted before.

“It’s a smart idea,” Grothman said of a local media area at the convention. “For cost reasons, in part, the little radio station, the little newspaper gets left behind, and there’s no reason that should be so.”

He encouraged both the Republican and Democratic national parties to make similar accommodations at future events.

“It’s important for us to promote the little media, right?” Grothman said. “We don’t want everybody just listening to Fox or MSNBC and that sort of thing. It’s important to support your small media outlets, and that’s one way to do it.”

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A woman and two men sit in chairs next to a blue wall with "RNC 2024 Milwaukee" logos. A cameraman is in the foreground.
WISC-TV Channel 3000 anchors Susan Siman and Brady Mallory prepare to interview U.S. Rep. Bryan Steil, R-Wis., on July 18, 2024, in Wisconsin Media Row at the 2024 Republican National Convention in Milwaukee. (Matthew DeFour / Wisconsin Watch)

National political conventions are challenging for small local outlets to cover. They draw some 50,000 people, including thousands of reporters from all over the world. Larger organizations like CNN, NPR, CBS News and The New York Times can shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars to set up broadcast booths and mini-newsrooms within the security perimeter.

That’s why Wisconsin Watch worked with local media organizations and the RNC to create a first-of-its-kind space at a national political convention.

Members of the Wisconsin media consortium praised the local reporter accommodations.

A woman with light blue headphones looks at a laptop on top of a green table.
Cap Times reporter Erin McGroarty, photographed July 17, 2024, at the 2024 Republican National Convention, said Wisconsin Media Row “gave local reporters a sense of place amidst a wild week.” (Jack Kelly / Wisconsin Watch)

“Wisconsin Media Row gave local reporters a sense of place amidst a wild week when many factors felt up in the air,” said Erin McGroarty, politics and government reporter for the Madison-based Cap Times. “The presence of a dedicated space for local press organizations allowed Wisconsin news groups to work together, bounce ideas off of each other and feel a sense of camaraderie as we worked to give our state critical coverage of a historical event.”

John Laughrin, news director for WFRV-TV in Green Bay, appreciated the practical aspects of having a place to store extra gear and equipment, plenty of power strips to support everyone working on laptops and reliable internet.

Wisconsin State Journal state government reporter Mitchell Schmidt said his team used Wisconsin Media Row primarily as a space to file stories, discuss the day’s plans, catch delegates and lawmakers as they came through for sit-down interviews or quick press gaggles, and simply recuperate.

A man with a mustache is seen in a blue suit with his right hand in the air.
Republican U.S. Senate candidate Eric Hovde talks to reporters at Wisconsin Media Row at the 2024 Republican National Convention in Milwaukee on July 17, 2024. (Jack Kelly / Wisconsin Watch)

After doing a round of interviews with several of the participating outlets, including the State Journal, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Urban Milwaukee, U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson credited the generosity of the donors to the RNC Host Committee, which raised $85 million for the entire convention.

“Those things cost money, so somebody’s got to pay,” Johnson said of Wisconsin Media Row.

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Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, attending his 12th RNC, endorsed creating a local media area at future conventions, calling it “a no-brainer.”

“You guys convey the message,” Thompson said. “And if you don’t convey the message, you don’t get your message out, you don’t win. It’s just utterly stupid if you don’t do it. I think it’s fantastic.”

A man with gray hair, a blue suit, a red tie and a credential talks to a man with his back to the camera.
Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, attending his 12th Republican National Convention, stops to chat with Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporters in Wisconsin Media Row on July 18, 2024. (Matthew DeFour / Wisconsin Watch)

Wisconsin Watch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom. Subscribe to our newsletters for original stories and our Friday news roundup.

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