The freedom to sift and winnow

In the words of UW-Madison's chancellor, Rebecca Blank, "universities are unique places, characterized by their acceptance of people who push the boundaries of perceived truth." Nowhere is that more true than in L&S.


Sift and winnow. It's a phrase that many might find perplexing. But for students here in the College of Letters & Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, it becomes part of the lexicon. Every alumnus knows that "sifting and winnowing" is at the heart of what we do.

But what does it mean?

In 1894, the UW Board of Regents issued a report in response to accusations by a board member that economist Richard Ely was a socialist and teaching “utopian, impractical, or pernicious doctrines.” After an investigation, Ely was declared innocent.

In the statement, the Board of Regents introduced the concept of academic freedom by stating that the university should never censor or limit its members’ quest for knowledge. The following quote is now on a plaque in Bascom Hall. The class of 1910 dedicated the plaque to the UW:

“Whatever may be 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.”

Academic freedom is one of three bedrock values of this university. The others are: Shared governance, and The Wisconsin Idea--expanding the boundaries of the university outward to the boundaries of the state, and beyond. 

In L&S, we are proud to encourage our students to pursue the "fearless sifting and winnowing" that is at the heart of learning and academic freedom. We expect our students to be brave in their pursuit of knowledge. It is part of our history and it will be your legacy if you pursue your academic career in the College of Letters & Science.

Go big, go bold, go L&S

It’s not just about what you learn. It’s about who you become. There is no “typical” L&S student. Intellectual curiosity — about the world, about yourself — is all you need.