The University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Center for Campus History is an ongoing effort to uncover and give voice to those who experienced, challenged and overcame prejudice on campus.
The center grew out of a campus study group that looked into the history of two UW–Madison student organizations in the early 1920s that bore the name of the Ku Klux Klan. Chancellor Emerita Rebecca Blank commissioned the Public History Project as one of several responses to the study group’s findings, and it began work in 2019. In 2023 the project was expanded into a permanent center on campus, under the university’s Division of Teaching and Learning.
The broad intent of the center is to ensure that all students and alumni are aware of the full history of the university, including the accomplishments of campus community members from marginalized populations whose stories previously may have been hidden or not widely known.
Frequently Asked Questions
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What is the Center for Campus History?
The Center for Campus History is an ongoing effort using to uncover and give voice to those who experienced and challenged bigotry and exclusion on campus and who, through their courage, resilience, and actions, have made the university a better place. The center pursues that goal through research, teaching and engagement.
What are its origins?
The center grew out of a campus study group — commissioned in response to the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia — that looked into the history of two UW–Madison student organizations in the early 1920s that bore the name of the Ku Klux Klan. The study group identified the university’s environment at that time as having “a pervasive culture of racial and religious bigotry… in which exclusion and indignity were routine, sanctioned in the institution’s daily life, and unchallenged by its leaders.” The study group urged the chancellor to “recover the voices of campus community members, in the era of the Klan and since, who struggled and endured in a climate of hostility and who sought to change it.” Chancellor Blank commissioned the Public History Project, the center’s predecessor, as one of several responses to the findings. The Chancellor’s Office provided funding from private sources for the project. However, the project was afforded academic freedom to pursue its scholarly research independent of the administration — university leaders did not dictate or have prior approval of the project’s findings. The project began work in 2019 and in 2023 it was expanded into a permanent center on campus, under the university’s Division of Teaching and Learning.
Why is the center necessary?
We believe history can — and should — be used to move us forward. History has modern-day legacies. By confronting our past, we hope to improve the future. We know there is work to be done. In campus surveys, students from historically underrepresented and disadvantaged groups, while reporting generally positive experiences on the UW–Madison campus, consistently rate the climate on campus less favorably than students from majority groups. The university seeks to create an environment where all students, staff, faculty and alumni are respected and feel a sense of belonging.
What does the center hope to achieve?
For generations, UW–Madison students and staff have been devoted to the “fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found,” a commitment to understanding the world and using that knowledge to improve the lives of people in Wisconsin and beyond. This commitment is a core value for the institution, yet those values have at times been obscured by exclusion, bigotry and inequity. The Center for Campus History stands as a commitment to sifting through and reckoning with our history in order to move toward a better future.
Are other universities doing work like this?
Yes. UW–Madison is joined by many other major universities, including Georgetown, Brown, and the University of Virginia, in confronting problematic institutional histories and bringing to light stories of struggle and perseverance. This work has proven necessary if universities are to create educational environments where all students can thrive. While many of the projects are focused on historic ties to slavery, UW–Madison’s project is unique in that it employs a broad lens to look at many kinds of exclusion and bigotry, especially related to race, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability status, and the university’s history on Ho-Chunk ancestral land. Since the start of UW–Madison’s Public History Project in 2019, other universities have announced similar initiatives. For example, in June 2022, the University of Michigan unveiled the Inclusive History Project, which will initially focus on the university’s history with respect to race and racism.
Who leads the Center for Campus History?
In August 2019, UW–Madison hired Kacie Lucchini Butcher, a public historian and award-winning museum curator, as director of the Public History Project, and she was appointed to lead the Center for Campus History in 2023. Throughout the project, Lucchini Butcher has engaged with students, faculty, staff, alumni, and other community members and has hired graduate and undergraduate students to assist with research.
How will UW–Madison students engage with the center?
As an institution of teaching and learning, UW–Madison prioritizes the student experience. Students have been involved with the center since its inception as the Public History Project in 2019. Several dozen graduate students and undergraduates have worked with the center as researchers, and many other students have benefited from the center’s outreach to instructors, campus units, and student organizations. The center’s staff members have collaborated with instructors to develop high-impact course assignments and projects, and they have given lectures and presentations to many classes, departments, and units across campus. The center is working to make its research embedded in the university’s teaching and learning through teaching guides, research guides and curricula. For more information on presentations, class tours, curriculum development, or special events, contact the Center for Campus History at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Now that the university has brought to light this research, what are the next steps?
The Center for Campus History is part of a broader collection of efforts to create a more welcoming and inclusive campus. We expect the center will intensify discussions that already are happening on campus and inspire new ideas for how our students, employees, alumni, and broader community can take active roles in creating change and achieving a more equitable UW–Madison. The centers’s research will accelerate this work by providing new information and a common starting point for essential discussions about what comes next. A tremendous amount of work around equity, diversity, inclusion and belonging is already going on across UW–Madison; the findings of the Center for Campus History will inform those efforts.
Does the Center for Campus History represent “the one truth” about UW–Madison’s past?
No. History is dynamic — it changes as new evidence surfaces and more voices are added to the public record. The meaning and impact of the Center for Campus History will evolve as people view its work and suggest additional research topics or contribute their own experiences to the university’s story. As with any historical inquiry, there inevitably will be different interpretations of the evidence that has been gathered. Meaningful engagement with our past requires an open mind and a willingness to grapple with perspectives that differ from our own and that might change how we view our history.
What is the university currently doing to make the campus better for underrepresented or marginalized students and employees?
The Center for Campus History is part of a host of broader efforts across campus — efforts that have been ongoing for a long time and are showing results — to confront our past and aim for a better present and future. For instance:
- UW–Madison, with the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association, created the Raimey-Noland Campaign to fund diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts across campus. It is named for the first known African American woman and man to graduate from UW–Madison, Mabel Watson Raimey and William Smith Noland. To date, the campaign has secured more than $96 million in gift commitments — far surpassing initial hopes for the campaign.
- In response to requests from and working together with the Student Inclusion Coalition (SIC), which formed in the wake of an exclusionary campus video, UW–Madison created the Divine Nine Garden Plaza to recognize historically Black sororities and fraternities.
- UW–Madison recently renovated and expanded the Gender and Sexuality Campus Center, founded in the 1990s.
- The university operates identity centers, including the Black Cultural Center, the Latinx Cultural Center, the Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Student Center, and the Indigenous Student Center. A Disability Cultural Center is currently in the planning stages.
- The university launched the Our Wisconsin inclusion education program and made it a requirement for all first-year and transfer students.
- The university pledged a future of cooperation and collaboration with the Ho-Chunk Nation and other First Nations of Wisconsin through the Our Shared Future effort, which acknowledges Bascom Hill and the surrounding land as the ancestral home of the Ho-Chunk Nation.
- The university Increased the number of faculty of color from 446 in 2016 to 580 in 2021. Between 2012 and 2021, enrollment of students of color increased by 60% while overall student enrollment rose by 12%.
- The University of Wisconsin Police Department developed the equity dashboard to promote transparency and provide a set of metrics that speak directly to the department’s commitment to equity in policing.
Each semester, the university publishes a Campus Climate Progress Report that lists the most recent campus efforts in the areas of equity, diversity, inclusion and belonging. View the Fall 2022 Campus Climate Progress Report (PDF).
What is the center's exhibit about? Is it still on display?
Sifting & Reckoning: UW–Madison’s History of Exclusion and Resistance is an award-winning exhibition from the Center for Campus History that brings to light stories of struggle and perseverance across 150 years. A physical version of the exhibition was on view at the Chazen Museum of Art in fall 2022, garnering positive critical feedback and seeing visits from thousands of people and hundreds of groups. An interactive digital version of the exhibition continues to welcome visitors online. There are no plans currently to reopen the physical exhibit.
Can the center help with research about the university’s past?
Possibly. The Center for Campus History has graduate and undergraduate students who help support our staff with various research projects about the university’s past. However, the history of the university spans over 175 years and the research questions about our past are seemingly endless. University Archives and Records Management provides essential research support to the campus community and beyond. The Archives team can provide resources and assistance for a variety of research needs. The Center has previously partnered with various departments and units on campus to support larger and more in-depth research projects including assisting the Department of Genetics to update their history page and leading research into the UW–Madison General Library System. If you have a complex and/or long-term research project that you would like the Center’s support on, please visit the “Collaborate with Us” section of our website. We accept partnership applications on a rolling basis and accept projects based on staffing, funding, and the proposed project’s alignment with the Center’s mission.
Does the Center accept historic objects or collection materials?
No. While the center works closely with the UW Archives, we do not collect or maintain any archival collections. The process of collecting, archiving, and caring for historically significant objects and collections is vitally important to understanding our past. The UW Archives’ primary mission is to preserve UW records and information of permanent historical value and their staff is specially trained to do just that.