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(sifting icon)1949


BY THE SPRING of 1915 the stage was set for the final act in the drama of the memorial plaque. There were new faces, and a new balance of power, in the Board of Regents.39 Whereas the 1910 board had numbered ten Stalwarts and five Progressives, the 1915 body was made up of nine Progressives and six Stalwarts. The ascendancy of the liberal element was an omen favoring peace between the board and the Class of 1910. Early antagonisms had lost much of their sharpness, so that even the Stalwarts, except for G. D. Jones, were prepared to look with favor on the memorial tablet.

The approaching class reunion inspired a new sense of urgency among the class leaders in 1915. Francis R. Duffy still retained the presidency; he, together with Milton J. Blair, attendance chairman, and William J. Meuer, general reunion chairman, organized the homecoming. It was agreed that Regent approval of the dedication and erection of the memorial would constitute the greatest inducement in luring classmen back to Madison. In pursuing this end, Blair in Chicago, and Duffy and Meuer in Wisconsin, worked independently of one another, and so much to cross purposes as to place in jeopardy the success of their project.

So far as Blair knew, the Regents had been "tough" and had not changed their attitudes in five years. Assuming that a frontal attack on the enemy was most likely to yield results, he assailed the legislature and the Regents in the pages of the New Republic . He charged that the legislature was trying to impose on the university faculty "a particular brand of economic teaching which will receive a certificate of orthodoxy." He reviewed the Ely and Ross incidents, and railed against the original rejection of the class memorial:

The bronze tablet with its troublesome inscription lies in the dust of a university building basement. This memorial epitomizes the thing for which the University is now fighting. The Class of 1910 is making a determined effort to have its memorial placed on the campus at its Quinquennial Reunion this spring. The granting or withholding of consent may indicate whether the University will continue to be a great educational institution or will become merely the dispenser of a particular brand of certified orthodoxy.40

At about the same time, printed placards appeared in all Madison street cars. The legend on the placards was as follows:

Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe that the great state UNIVERSITY of WISCONSIN should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the TRUTH can be found.

This is the legend on a handsome bronze tablet--the Memorial of the Class of 1910. The Regents have never granted this tablet a place on the campus. If they will finally consent we will dedicate our Memorial at Wisconsin's greatest Reunion.


Following the Blair article and the placards by only four days came an editorial by Richard Lloyd Jones in the Wisconsin State Journal . Jones complained that "while the tombstones of other classes have found permanent place to make our campus ridiculous, the class tablet of 1910 with its heroic challenge is secreted away in some darkened cellar, and the Regents have not yet found a place for it in the light of day." Returning classmen would ask the board embarrassing questions about the tablet. "Why has it been set up against a cellar wall? What is there in this declaration that can embarrass this University in the light of day? ... Let the Regents answer."42

Meantime, Francis R. Duffy and William J. Meuer had pursued a course quite different from that initiated by Milton J. Blair. Believing that time and change of personnel had already softened Regent opposition, they assumed that through friendly conference and conciliation, harmony could be restored and the desired object attained. With the assistance of President Van Hise they had approached some Regents directly, and had written friendly letters to others.

Their work had proceeded with fair effectiveness until Blair's letter appeared in the New Republic. When Meuer conferred with Van Hise on May 28, the president was indignant. He felt that the classmen had not been dealing in good faith, and warned that if further attacks were made on the Regents the memorial crusade would be lost. Meuer wrote to Blair:

Briefly, we had our point won so far as putting up the tablet was concerned, but the article you wrote in the New Republic has upset everything. President Van Hise told me yesterday that he considered it the most infamous and insidious misrepresentation of facts that could have been issued. That it comes as a distinct blow to the University at this time, that if the Regents had any backbone or manhood about them, they would never grant the request now.43

Both Meuer and Duffy begged Blair to refrain from giving further offense.

The chief peace-making efforts had to be directed at Regent G. D. Jones, who clung to his opinion that the plaque had been inspired by "malicious and vicious pups," such as Lincoln Steffens. "I believe the same forces were back of that movement that are now pressing the consideration of this matter by the Regents," Jones declared, "I believe the class was duped and made use of for the purpose of discrediting the Regents."44 This was stoutly denied by Duffy, who told Regent Hammond, "There is nothing in the memorial which is an effort to slip something over on the Regents, Mr. Jones' opinion notwithstanding."45

By way of placating Jones, and at the same time making the class position clear, William Meuer wrote a lengthy letter to him. Pertinent passages are quoted:

I am sure the class does not want to have trouble, and I'm equally sure that the Regents do not want trouble. I am also confident that Mr. Blair did not mean to stir up any animosity and that it was merely in his enthusiasm to get five hundred people back for the reunion that he has been guilty of any possible indiscretions. I am sending you a copy of the street car sign and Mr. Jones is sending you some of the circulars. This lays before you everything that has happened and it seems like good evidence to the effect that we merely want a big crowd back and that we do want to put our memorial up. However, we want to put it up only for the sake of the tablet itself and want it divorced absolutely from all previous history. My hope is that we merely find a place for it quietly, in some satisfactory location--satisfactory to all concerned, and then stage a dignified dedication which will commemorate the words for what they are and not for the unfortunate circumstances they have been connected with. Such a procedure will not embarrass your board and it will, at the same time, satisfy the class which is justly indignant at the long five-year delay it has endured.

Certainly, the University has no more staunch friend than I and I am very much afraid that a refusal will cause a tremendous upheaval which the University, at this crisis cannot afford to endure ... As man to man, I ask you then for the good of our University and all concerned, that you work with us in finding a place to put the tablet. I sincerely hope you will agree with me that this is the best way out.46

Regent Jones replied immediately, but the tenor of his reply betrayed his misgivings:

I am very glad to get your letter of May 27th. I am entirely agreeable to the arrangement you suggest. I have exerted my best efforts for many years to avoid involving the University in controversy. I have submitted to much gross personal misrepresentation to avoid this...

The truth is the Regents have at no time, so far as I am aware, opposed in any way academic freedom within the University. The hue and cry raised in February and March, 1910, was chiefly the work of politicians, in which, unfortunately, some self-styled friends of the University joined. Much was said that was imprudent. Much was said that was wholly false and vicious. There is some blame on some university officials. I honestly believe none of this attached to the Regents ... I am confident your class does not want to besmirch the Regents of 1910, though I have no doubt certain mistaken enthusiasts are inclined to do so. I think that once and for all there should be an honest, temperate statement made that will be just to the Regents and university authorities of 1910, so that as a historical incident the erecting of this monument on a suitable place on the university grounds shall be free from sinister effect.47

To class president Duffy, Jones also wrote, "I believe a manly statement from your class of the facts, which would completely exonerate the Regents of 1909-10 from the false charges that were then, and to some extent are now circulated against them, would be honorable and beneficial to our University."48 He did not want the tablet to be a memorial to the Regents' behavior in the Ross incident.

In order to satisfy Jones' demand for a statement absolving the board of blame, two letters were addressed to the board. The first, prepared by William J. Meuer, said:

The Board of Regents in delaying the matter of accepting the class memorial and later delaying in the designation of a site, acted in good faith on their part and ... the trouble has been due to misunderstandings and to an unfortunate trend of events which beclouded the true motives of the class in adopting the memorial.49

The second statement, submitted by Meuer and Milton J. Blair, declared:

We wish to state that there was no ulterior motive in the choice of this memorial. Our sole desire was to put into enduring bronze the splendid idea for that academic freedom which has made the University of Wisconsin one of the world's greatest institutions of learning. We deplore the fact that any political significance was attached to this memorial. We assure you that it was not conceived with any such consequence in view. Our motives were sincere and were inspired only by the great love and respect which we have for our Alma Mater.50

The board rejected both statements as unsatisfactory. Regent Jones came forward with the opinion that the class declaration "substantially includes an assertion that the Regents discussed, and sought to interfere with academic freedom. This is untrue and should certainly be eliminated."51

By way of eliminating untruth, Jones and A. P. Nelson, then president of the board, prepared a "satisfactory" statement which the classmen were expected to sign. The Regent version read as follows:

To the Regents of the University of Wisconsin and to the Public:

The Class of 1910 of the University of Wisconsin presented a bronze tablet to the University at the Commencement of 1910 as the class memorial. There was at the time considerable untrue and unfortunate newspaper comment relating to this tablet, which has recently been revived.

Upon careful investigation we find that the events in the University during the school year 1909-10, and especially during the winter and spring of that year, were greatly misrepresented at that time, and that there was, in fact, no action of the Regents of the University which unduly interfered with or sought to interfere with reasonable academic freedom in the University, or that was in any way prejudicial to what we believe are its best interests. We have made this investigation as representatives of the University of Wisconsin Class of 1910, and for the purpose of fairly ascertaining the facts and clearing this entire matter from misstatements and injustice. We hope this true statement will prevent further misunderstandings in this matter.52

Milton J. Blair was one of the class officers whose signature was required. Upon reading the Nelson and Jones statement, Blair exploded:

In regard to that part of the statement which reads "and there was, in fact, no action of the Regents which unduly interfered with or sought to interfere with reasonable academic freedom in the University," I wish to say that such a statement is a misleading sophism...

Neither can I subscribe myself to any doctrine of "reasonable academic freedom." This phrase imputes that there should be only a limited academic freedom, and that the majority on the Board of Regents should prescribe this limit. To me this is not freedom. A man is either free or he is not free. If he is reasonably free he is under restraint. Convicts are reasonably free on parole, political appointees are reasonably free as long as they do not incur the displeasure of the person appointing them, children as reasonably free as long as they do not exceed parental authority. Perhaps the "reasonable academic freedom" to which the Board of Regents asks us to subscribe ourselves is the political sort of reasonable freedom, perhaps it is only the paternal sort. In either case, I do not wish, nor do I think the Class of 1910 wishes, to propose a freedom for the University of Wisconsin which is only conditional.

I cannot agree to the statement "that there was no action in any way prejudicial to what we believe are its best interests." I found that the conflict of authority between the Board of Visitors and the Board of Regents, created a set of conditions which were prejudicial to what I believe are the best interests of the University of Wisconsin. I found that there was a sentiment and an attempted action which were prejudicial. I found that there had been an antagonism to President Van Hise, Professor Ross, Professor Gilmore and Professor Turner which was prejudicial to the best interests of the University, as I see these interests. To cover all of this antagonism and to say that there was no prejudicial action merely because prejudicial attempts did not crystallize into formal action is a grave misrepresentation, which it would be neither honorable nor just for us to subscribe to.

In regard to the last paragraph I wish to say that I wish the entire matter might be cleared from misstatements and misrepresentations, but to "hope that this true statement will prevent further misunderstandings in the matter" is merely to delude ourselves and the public because I do not consider it a true statement and I cannot in honesty to myself and our class, subscribe my name to it.53

For a time it appeared that Blair's strong stand would wreck the hopes for peace. However, Van Hise, as mediator, saved the negotiations. In collaboration with William J. Meuer he worked out a compromise statement acceptable to all parties. From the Jones and Nelson form a few words and phrases were deleted, and a few added; afterwards, on his own account, Meuer"doctored it up" a little more. The expurgated version was altogether harmless and devoid of objectionable confessions. It acknowledged no victor, conceded no defeat. It was a draw.

On June 15, 1915, Van Hise went before the board to read the compromise letter:

To the Regents of the University of Wisconsin and to the Public:

The Class of 1910 of the University of Wisconsin presented a bronze tablet to the University at the Commencement of 1910 as a Class Memorial.

There has been considerable discussion relating to the tablet and a number of statements have been made which are untrue and unfortunate.

Upon careful investigation we find that the events in the University during the school year 1909-10 were, in several instances, misrepresented at the time, and that, in fact, no action was taken by the Board of Regents which interfered with academic freedom in the University.

We have made this investigation as representatives of the University of Wisconsin Class of 1910, and for the purpose of fairly ascertaining the facts and clearing this matter from misstatements and injustice. We hope this statement will prevent further misunderstanding in the matter.

(Signed) F. RYAN DUFFY
President U. W. Class of 1910
Chairman Attendance Committee

(Signed) WM. J. MEUER
General Reunion Chairman
Reunion Secretary

Van Hise followed the reading with a verbal report; he announced that the tablet had already been placed on University Hall. Appropriately, it was G. D. Jones, bulwark of the opposition, who moved that the president's report and the class letter be accepted.54

On the same day President Van Hise addressed the happy classmen who assembled to witness the dedication of the plaque. Said Van Hise:

The principles of academic freedom have never found expression in language so beautiful, words so impressive, phrases so inspiring. It was twenty-one years ago that these words were incorporated in a report of the Board of Regents exonerating a professor (Dr. Richard T. Ely ) from the charge of "socialism" that was brought against him. This professor had incurred the displeasure of some who regarded socialism as so dangerous that they wanted no mention of this great social fact made in the University. This report back in 1894 marks one of the great landmarks in the history of the University. And from that day to this, no responsible party or no responsible authority has ever succeeded in restricting freedom of research and teaching within these walls. There are no "sacred cows" at Wisconsin. There is no such thing as "standardized" teaching in any subject. Professors and instructors present faithfully the various sides of each problem. Their duty is to train the students to independent thinking. They are in no sense propagandists for any class or interest. A university to be worthy of its name must be progressive--not progressive in the partisan sense, but in the dictionary sense. I would not care to have anything to do with a university that was not progressive.55

Joseph E. Davies, a rising Democrat from Milwaukee, had been invited to make the principal address on this occasion. Even though he was unable to appear he sent a message which Francis R. Duffy read to the assemblage. Said Davies:

The Class of 1910 has rendered a great service to the University of Wisconsin, and to those ideals in education and government, which the University of Wisconsin has come to stand for in so splendid a way, throughout the world. The principle which is enunciated in bronze upon the tablet ... is the expression of the spirit which has made the University of Wisconsin great in fame and great in the service which it has rendered ... that principle has become settled, and cemented into the very foundations of the University, and into the relation of the state toward academic freedom ... Never again will the question be raised. The issue has been settled and determined. The dedication, in my judgment, of your memorial tablet signalizes the permanent redemption of the great principle, which is vital to our great University, and to the enduring interests of the citizens of the commonwealth.56

After a century of service to the people of Wisconsin, the University may be justifiably proud of its tradition of academic freedom.

In its innermost significance, the memorial tablet stands as a sentinel, guarding, interpreting and proclaiming the ever-buoyant and progressive spirit of the University of Wisconsin in its unceasing struggle upward for more light and its untrammeled search for truth wherever found.

When time and the elements shall have effaced every resistive letter on the historic bronze tablet, its imperishable spirit shall still ring clear and true.

How appropriate today, in rekindling the torch of freedom set ablaze by the sturdy pioneers of 1894, to say with them:


39 At this time the Board of Regents comprised the following:

State Superintendent of Public Instruction, ex-officio Chas. P. Cary
President of the University, ex-officio Charles R. Van Hise
Gilbert E. Seaman Theodore M. Hammond Granville D. Jones
Mrs. Florence G. Buckstaff James F. Trottman Orlando E. Clark
A. J. Horlick Miss Elizabeth A. Waters Ben F. Faast
F. W. A. Notz D. O. Mahoney A. P. Nelson
Edward M. McMahon

40 Blair's letter was printed in the New Republic, 3 (May 15, 1915), 44. Before retiring, Milton J. Blair spent twenty-five years in the advertising business, the last fifteen as vice-president of the great J. Walter Thompson Company. He served with the War Advertising Council, and for the last two years has devoted himself to the writing of a book. He now resides in New York.

41 The placards were printed at a cost of $5.50; advertising space cost $22.50 for one month. One of the original placards is in the author's possession.

42 Wisconsin State Journal, May 19, 1915.

43 Meuer to Blair, May 29, 1915. William J. Meuer is a business man; at present he is the proprietor of the Meuer Photoart House in Madison.

44 Jones to the Regents, May 25, 1915.

45 Duffy to Hammond, May 26, 1915.

46 Meuer to Jones, May 27, 1915. At the time of these negotiations the tension between the University and the state administration was considerable. In 1914 the Board of Public Affairs sponsored the Allen Survey, which proved to be highly critical of the University. Furthermore, Governor Phillip was known to be unfriendly towards Van Hise and the University. This explains the "crisis" to which Meuer referred in writing to Jones.

47 Jones to Meuer, May 28, 1915.

48 Jones to Duffy, June 9, 1915.

49 Meuer to the Regents, June 1, 1915.

50 Meuer and Blair to the Executive Committee of the Regents, no date.

51 Jones to Duffy, June 9, 1915.

52 Copy furnished by William Meuer.

53 Milton J. Blair to William Meuer, June 4, 1915.

54 Records of the Board of Regents, June 15, 1915. President Van Hise and State Architect Arthur Peabody decided that the plaque should be placed in the loggia of University Hall where it would have the advantage of "being exposed to the public at all times, at the same time being protected from the weather by the portico.

55 Wisconsin State Journal, June 16, 1915. Note that Van Hise did not say that no responsible authority had ever attempted to restrict freedom of research and teaching; he said no responsible party had ever succeeded in restricting research and teaching.

56 Wisconsin State Journal, June 14, 1915, p. 2.

Herfurth, Theodore. Sifting and Winnowing. [Madison]: University of Wisconsin, 1949.
From the State Historical Society of Wisconsin: Pam 56-107.