Use Senior Gift to honor ‘Sifting’ (November 2009)

[This originally appeared in the November 12th issue of the Badger Herald]

You’ve probably never thought much about the UW class gift, or even known that graduating classes give one. However, there is good reason to pay attention in 2010. This spring is the 100th anniversary of the class of 1910’s gift, the Sifting and Winnowing plaque on the front of Bascom Hall. The very prominent plaque captures our motto of academic freedom: the university “should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.”

No gift before or since is simultaneously both a beloved physical piece of campus as well as a cherished fundamental ideal, and its anniversary should be marked by more than a ceremony and a few speeches. The best way to honor the plaque and the class that gave it is to try to match them by giving an equally treasured token of appreciation.

The full history of the plaque is worth knowing. As part of its centennial in 1949, the UW commissioned Theodore Herfurth to prepare a brief history of the 1894 controversy that lead to the phrase, the creation of the plaque 16 years later, and the five-year battle to actually display the plaque. The library has the full version online, and it’s an easy 30-minute read.

The 30-second version goes something like this:

In 1894, Oliver Wells, a loud-mouthed conservative from east of Madison, found himself in a position of some power and used it to launch attacks against the university for political gain. (Perhaps Rep. Steve Nass had a former life.) That summer, Wells managed to make a fuss over the supposed secret socialism of professor Richard Ely. The regents appointed a committee to hold a “trial” that fall. Wells lasted for all of one day at the hearings until he was thoroughly debunked and never returned. The committee instead turned the process into an examination of academic freedom, and their final report is the source of the Sifting and Winnowing passage.

In 1909 and 1910, academic freedom was again perceived to be under threat. Professor Frederick Jackson Turner left in November 1909 for Harvard due to interference from the regents. (In modern terms, imagine Mike Leckrone being forced out.) Conservative regents also trotted out more socialism scaremongering — a refrain that apparently never gets old — and again were beaten back by the faculty and university president.

At this time, class gifts were pointless tombstone “memorials” that were put in what are now the woods just north of Bascom Hall. A muckraking journalist whispered in the ear of the class officers that a better idea would be something to memorialize academic freedom. The idea caught on quickly, and the students went ahead and made the plaque themselves. Herfurth notes — and you can clearly see — it was not professionally made, as the letters don’t line up very well. The amateur quality of the plaque is part of its charm, and the plaque is actually a little more special when you know who actually laid it out.

The regents, correctly detecting that the plaque was at least in part an attack aimed at them, refused the plaque at the end of the year. Instead, it was dumped in the basement for five years until eventually a combination of a new progressive majority and a carefully negotiated compromise led to its 1915 placement on Bascom.

So, what should happen in 2010? There is some money for the class gift, between several different sources, but only a few thousand dollars. We should maximize this money in two ways.

First, this shouldn’t be only the class of 2010’s responsibility. History demands that they take the lead, but the true centennial of the plaque is 2015. It seems appropriate that this be a multi-year effort of the next few classes. And it shouldn’t be left to undergraduates.

Second, the Alumni Association’s Senior Week should be involved. This will only be its second year, but Senior Week, April 3 to April 8, 2010, is an effort by the WAA to celebrate graduation. It is also a way to get students into the Alumni Association before they even leave campus. The WAA includes a “special offer” membership, which includes a donation toward a class gift. The actual dollar amount through this program isn’t important — again, like Senior Week, it’s an attempt to condition students to be open to giving to UW. Building a donor base by making the gift something students are likely to contribute to is more valuable than the small amount raised for departments.

Are students open to donating for a serious class gift, especially with the bill from the MIU and the now-full Union Initiative? I hope so. What should the gift be? I have no idea, but I bet someone on campus does. This is an opportunity for the senior class officers to make those positions worth something. They can help us find the right gift, and I hope they step up. A good gift not only satisfies history and enriches future students but it ties us back to campus through the rest of our lives. That’s a gift we should give ourselves.

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