Sifting and winnowing plaque

The "Sifting and Winnowing" plaque mounted on the front of Bascom Hall proclaims UW-Madison's dedication to free thought and the exchange of ideas. Its message has been a kind of mission statement for the university since the 1890s.

M.P. KING — State Journal

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Bucky Badger gets the smiles and high-fives. Abe Lincoln draws legions of photo-seeking graduates.

But if you want to know what UW-Madison is really all about, look to the big bronze “Sifting and Winnowing” plaque at the entrance of Bascom Hall.

For students on their way to lectures or administrators heading to work, it can be an easy thing to pass by — another historical marker on a hill dotted with them.

But it’s worth stopping for a second to ponder the words on the plaque, first written in 1894 by university regents who refused to censure a professor accused of being a pro-union socialist.

You’ll realize they form a mission statement for UW-Madison:

“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 may be found.”

The statement grounds UW-Madison in a tradition of free thought, declaring the university a place where ideas are presented, challenged, analyzed and advanced.

The words tell students and visitors they have arrived at a place that welcomes their perspectives and encourages them to take in those of the people who are here with them.

UW-Madison has produced tie-dyed hippies and buttoned-down conservatives; Ayn Rand disciples and, yes, even some pro-union socialists.

The plaque at the center of campus gives you an idea why.

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Nico Savidge is the higher education reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.