One hundred years ago, the land on the current site of the University of Wisconsin-Baraboo/Sauk County campus, sloping along the hill and overlooking the Baraboo bluffs, was likely farmland and woodlands.
It’s not hard for me to imagine, sitting in my office with its panoramic view of Baraboo and the surrounding area, what it was like back then.
I doubt that the farmers on this land could have imagined what would be here today: A UW campus with 650 students, hailing from every community in our area and studying everything from genetics to art.
Our students are like seeds, germinating with ideas, and scattering in the wind to communities in Sauk County, across the state and across the country. The knowledge that begins on our hilltop campus continues to grow long after our graduates put down roots elsewhere.
It’s an apt metaphor, because it was also 100 years ago that the Wisconsin Idea took shape in our state.
The Wisconsin Idea is the principle that the University of Wisconsin System should improve people’s lives beyond the classroom, and that the boundaries of the university are the boundaries of the state. It had its seeds in the Morrill Act of 1862, a federal law that allowed proceeds from the sales of public lands to support public universities and their outreach missions. The Morrill Act connected the expertise of farmers with the knowledge and research housed in a university — and it put the impetus on these institutions to reach out to their local communities and serve the public good.
UW-Madison became the state’s land grant university, and the idea behind it gained particular momentum in Wisconsin, a state with strong histories of both farming and public education. As a land grant institution, UW-Madison developed public outreach activities that included Extension services charged with bringing the resources of the university to the people of Wisconsin.
“I shall never be content,” UW-Madison President Charles Van Hise said in 1904, “until the beneficent influence of the University reaches every home in the state.”
In the years of Gov. Robert La Follette, the UW played an important role in shaping public policy by providing the Legislature with UW faculty expertise when drafting legislation. Then in 1912, an obscure La Follette administration bureaucrat named Charles McCarthy wrote the book “The Wisconsin Idea,” which described Wisconsin’s progressive relationship between its state government and the UW and popularized the phrase we still use today.
UW-Madison expanded its outreach services dramatically between the 1930s and 1960s, opening up “Center” campuses throughout the state. UW-Baraboo/Sauk County was opened as a Center in 1968. The University of Wisconsin System we know today formed in 1971, when the UW campuses and Extension merged with the nine Wisconsin State University four-year campuses and four two-year campuses. Collectively, the UW System carries out the modern Wisconsin Idea.
UW-Baraboo/Sauk County was founded with the Wisconsin Idea as part of our mission, and we hold that up as a standard today.
We provide access for students to begin virtually any four-year degree in the UW System. We house a branch of the world-class UW library system. Faculty scholarship often involves our students and is connected to our communities. We provide access to the performing and visual arts through our concerts and art exhibits. We provide lifelong learning through our Continuing Education Department and our community lecture series.
Times have changed since our campus was a parcel of farmland and the book on the “Wisconsin Idea” first went to press, but the commitment to connecting the people to their university has not. As UW-BSC looks to the future, we hope to engage our communities even more. We are working to add a new Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences degree for place-bound adult students, and we’re collaborating with Sauk County and the city of Baraboo to build new science facilities and expand our classroom spaces as our enrollment hits an all-time high.
It’s been our privilege to watch the seeds of knowledge planted at our campus grow and flourish throughout Wisconsin and beyond. We look forward to being part of the progress that another hundred years of the Wisconsin Idea will bring.
Dr. Thomas Pleger is Campus Dean at the University of Wisconsin-Baraboo/Sauk County and is a life-long resident of Wisconsin. He earned his BS from UW-La Crosse and his MA and Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Pleger has held positions at UW-Madison, UW-La Crosse, UW-Marinette, UW-Fox Valley, and UW-Baraboo/Sauk County