Sifting and winnowing

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"Sifting and winnowing" commemorative plaque

Sifting and winnowing is a metaphor for the academic pursuit of truth affiliated with the University of Wisconsin–Madison. It was coined by UW President Charles Kendall Adams in an 1894 final report from a committee exonerating economics professor Richard T. Ely of censurable charges from state education superintendent Oliver Elwin Wells. The phrase became a local byword for the tenet of academic freedom.


Professor Richard T. Ely, whose work sparked a state challenge to academic freedom

In the 1890s, University of Wisconsin economics professor Richard T. Ely's philosophy and radical practice came under fire from state education superintendent Oliver Elwin Wells.[1] Ely was known to be liberal and pro-union, having published a book on socialism.[1] Wells protested Ely's socialist beliefs, teaching, and public speaking to UW president Charles Kendall Adams and the Board of Regents, who did not censure Ely.[1] A committee appointed to address the charges produced a report that exonerated Ely upon acceptance by the regents.[1] The report introduced the idea of "sifting and winnowing":[1]

UW–Madison President Adams, who coined the phrase

Ely later referred to the report as the "Wisconsin Magna Charta" for its guarantees of academic freedom in pursuit of truth.[3] In Decades of Chaos and Revolution, Stephen J. Nelson contends that UW's sentiment on academic freedom had been set "well before" the 1890s.[1] He added that the 1894 statement "sounds the trumpet of the fundamental principles of the academy: an unending, unlimited belief in the creed of academic freedom and inquiry."[1]

The "sifting and winnowing" construction was coined by Adams, the UW president, who had defended Ely publicly and read his book.[3] It was later invoked by UW–Madison Chancellor Robben Wright Fleming when responding to protestors during his tenure.[4]

In a later incident, sociology professor Edward Alsworth Ross was censured upon inviting anarchist Emma Goldman to address his class.[5] He did not share her beliefs, but supported her free speech.[5] In memorial of the incident, the Class of 1910 created a commemorative "sifting and winnowing" plaque of the phrase in its context, which the regents rejected.[5] After the Class appealed to area newspapers, the regents relented.[5] The plaque was installed on Bascom Hall in 1915, where it remains.[5] It was rededicated in 1957.[5]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Nelson 2012, p. 45.
  2. ^ Herfurth 1949, ch. 1.
  3. ^ a b Nelson 2012, p. 46.
  4. ^ Nelson 2012, p. 44.
  5. ^ a b c d e f "Letters & Science 101 - Traditions: Sifting and Winnowing". University of Wisconsin–Madison College of Letters and Science. February 16, 2012. Archived from the original on November 9, 2013. Retrieved November 8, 2013. Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help)