A collage of historical photos and newspaper clippings from events at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

We’re thrilled to announce that the Public History Project will continue its work as a new permanent center at UW–Madison!

Following the overwhelmingly positive reception of the Project’s work over the past four years, the university announced in January 2023 that it will establish the Rebecca M. Blank Center for Campus History, housed within the Division for Teaching and Learning. The new center’s full-time staff will build on the Project’s efforts, continuing to educate the campus community about the university’s past in ways that will enrich the curriculum, inform administrative decisions and bolster efforts to achieve a more equitable university.

The university anticipates having the new center up and running by mid-summer, which is when the Public History Project, designed as a limited initiative, will end.

Spanning more than 150 years, Sifting & Reckoning: UW–Madison’s History of Exclusion and Resistance is an exhibition that brings to light stories of struggle and perseverance. Through archival objects, photographs, and oral histories, it illuminates under-recognized histories in the university’s past, including the UW’s first students of color; early struggles for equality in social organizations, housing, and athletics; and protest movements on campus.

A physical iteration 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.

Sifting & Reckoning title panel

Frequently Asked Questions

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What is the Public History Project?

The Public History Project is a multiyear effort commissioned by former Chancellor Rebecca Blank 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.

What are its origins?

The project 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 as one of several responses to the findings.

Why is the project 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 is the university’s relationship to the Public History Project?

The Chancellor’s Office commissioned the project and provided funding from private sources. 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 Public History Project has collaborated with alumni and with faculty, staff, and students across the university, including student groups and student leaders. The project reports to a steering committee composed of well-regarded scholars, respected academic staff, and well-known local community leaders.

What does the project 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 Public History Project stands as a commitment to sifting through and reckoning with our history in order to move toward a better future.

Are other universities doing projects like this?

Yes. With the Public History Project, UW–Madison joins 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.

What is the duration of the Public History Project?

The project began in fall 2019 and is set to end in mid-summer 2023. Throughout the project, staff members, including students, have published blog posts based on their research at publichistoryproject.wisc.edu. The project’s museum exhibit runs from Sept. 12 to Dec. 23, 2022, at the Chazen Museum of Art on campus. The exhibit’s companion website at reckoning.wisc.edu provides an immersive online experience that will remain available after the physical exhibit closes.

Who leads the Public History Project?

In August 2019, UW–Madison hired Kacie Lucchini Butcher, a public historian and award-winning museum curator, as director of the Public History Project. She has worked collaboratively with a Public History Project advisory committee led by Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of History Stephen Kantrowitz. 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.

What is the cost of the project and where is the money coming from?

The university is spending about $1M on the Public History Project. The project was made possible with support and funding provided by the Office of the Chancellor from private sources. No taxpayer money is involved.

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How will UW–Madison students engage in the project and the exhibit?

As an institution of teaching and learning, UW–Madison prioritizes the student experience. Students have been involved in the Public History Project since its inception in 2019, and that strong connection will continue and expand with this fall’s exhibit and the development of curricula materials based on the project’s research. More than two dozen graduate students and undergraduates have worked on the project as researchers, and many other students have benefitted from the Public History Project’s outreach to instructors, campus units, and student organizations. The project’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. This fall, these opportunities for student engagement are expected to increase as instructors incorporate the exhibit into their classes alongside other course materials. Long term, the project’s research is expected to become embedded in the university’s teaching and learning through teaching guides, research guides and curricula tied to the project. For more information on presentations, class tours, curriculum development, or special events, contact the Public History Project at publichistoryproject@wisc.edu.

Now that the university has brought to light this research, what are the next steps?

The Public History Project is part of a broader collection of efforts to create a more welcoming and inclusive campus. We expect the project 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 project’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 Public History Project will inform those efforts.

How can the campus community and the broader public be part of the ongoing conversation?

There will be numerous opportunities throughout the fall semester for members of the campus community to engage with the Public History Project and the exhibit, from small-group discussions to large-scale public events. Among some of the special events planned around the exhibit: Graduate Student Welcome Reception (Sept. 19), Latinx Heritage Month Night (Sept. 21), Student Night (Sept. 29), Director’s Conversation with Amy Gilman at the Chazen (Oct. 6), 30th Anniversary Celebration for the Gender and Sexuality Campus Center (Oct. 18), Multicultural Homecoming Tailgate Party (Oct. 22); Go Big Read author event (Nov. 1), and Diversity Forum Night at the Museum (Nov. 14). The Public History Project also will be the focus of a session at the campus Diversity Forum on Nov. 15. For an ongoing list of events, please see the Public History Project website. Additionally, as of late August, more than 40 campus departments and units already had scheduled events and discussion groups with the Public History Project team to delve more deeply into aspects of the exhibit. The primary way for the campus community and the broader public to provide input on the project and to suggest next steps for the university is the feedback form on the website. Over the course of the exhibit, the university will be considering other ways of gathering input from the campus community on how UW–Madison can better support all students and employees, especially those who historically have been marginalized.

Does the Public History Project 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 Public History Project will evolve as people view the exhibit 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.

Why is the Chazen, an art museum, hosting an exhibit about the university’s history?

The Public History Project is a campuswide effort. Hosting the exhibit in a highly visible and recognizable space on campus is a crucial way the Chazen is supporting the project. As the premier exhibit space on campus, the Chazen is uniquely equipped to fill this role.

After Dec. 23, will the exhibit move to other space on campus?

There are no plans currently to continue the physical exhibit after Dec. 23. However, a companion website (reckoning.wisc.edu) will archive the exhibit and provide viewers with an immersive online experience, including materials that expand on the physical exhibit.

What is the university currently doing to make the campus better for underrepresented or marginalized students and employees?

The Public History Project 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).

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