Topics Map > College of Letters and Science > Administration & Governance > Administrative Resources
Topics Map > College of Letters and Science > Administration & Governance > Frequently Asked Questions
Topics Map > College of Letters and Science > Administration & Governance > Welcome to the College

Letters & Science 101 - Traditions: Sifting and Winnowing

This document explains what people mean when they use the phrase "sifting and winnowing" and provides links to additional resources on this topic.


When people use the phrase "sifting and winnowing," they are referring to a tradition of academic freedom that goes back to a September 18, 1894 statement  by the University of Wisconsin's governing body, the Board of Regents. The Board of Regents had been asked to censure Professor Richard Ely, who was accused of socialist, pro-union activities. Their statement has inspired generations of students, faculty, and staff since then and often is used as a shorthand for the strong value placed on individual intellectual and academic freedom at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It says:

“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 Class of 1910 presented the "Sifting and Winnowing" plaque pictured above as a class memorial after sociology professor Edward A. Ross invited anarchist Emma Goldman, who was visiting Madison, to speak in his class. Ross disavowed any support of anarchism but defended her right to free speech in his class. He was later censured for his actions. The Board of Regents thought that students were influenced by radicals and rejected the plaque. The class took their case to the local newspapers, and the plaque was finally mounted on Bascom Hall in 1915. Since then, it has served as a visible reminder of the campus's cultural commitment to the freedom to think, present, and debate ideas.

Additional Resources:

Academic Freedom on Trial: 100 Years of Sifting and Winnowing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison
University of Wisconsin Press, 1998. Edited by W. Lee Hansen with 30 contributors - faculty, students, alumni, university officials, and citizens - writing on the origins of the statement and its meaning today, including issues of free speech, hate speech codes, due process, and intellectual property rights.

"Sifting and Winnowing"
Letters & Science TODAY, v. 12, no. 1, Fall 2006
Excerpts from English Professor Helen C. White's remarks at the 1957 rededication of the Sifting and Winnowing plaque.

Sifting and Winnowing
A 1948 publication authored by businessman and philanthropist Theodore Herfurth, and published on-line through the General Library System's "Wisconsin Electronic Reader."

Keywords:traditions, sifting and winnowing, intellectual freedom, academic freedom, first amendment, free speech   Doc ID:21911
Owner:Lisa T.Group:College of Letters & Science
Created:2011-12-22 12:24 CSTUpdated:2012-02-16 10:08 CST
Sites:College of Letters & Science
Feedback:  4   0