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Sunday, April 14, 2024

University committee seeks approval for historical plaque to acknowledge former UW president Van Hise’s promotion of eugenics

During “What’s in a Name? Van Hise & the History of Eugenics at UW-Madison,” the Committee on Disability Access & Inclusion shared with students and community members they are seeking approval for a proposed plaque.


The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Shared Governance Committee on Disability Access & Inclusion (CDAI) hosted a talk on Thursday, announcing the committee’s plan to propose a plaque be installed in the Van Hise Hall lobby. This plaque would stand to inform the public and recognize the university’s past president Charles Van Hise's support of eugenics, according to CDAI. 

Built in 1965, Van Hise Hall was named to honor the first UW-Madison graduate to serve as the university's president. Apart from his many contributions to UW, such as establishing the Wisconsin Idea, the CDAI believes his ideas on eugenics need to be acknowledged, according to Kacie Lucchini Butcher, director of the university’s Public History Project.

Amy Van Aarsten, a graduate student and member of the CDAI, read, “History reminds us that we must remain vigilant against the deceptive, intimidating and exclusionary practices of eugenics,” one of the last lines on the intended plaque. 

“Our goal is to acknowledge, confront and engage with the complicated legacy of Charles Van Hise,” added Lisa Forrest, chair of the CDAI and professor in the School of Veterinary Medicine. 

Van Aarsten said that the committee has notified campus leadership of their intentions to get approval for the plaque later this spring. 

For  the approval process the plaque needs endorsement by University leadership, including Facilities, Planning, and Management, the Chancellor, and the Board of Regents, according to Forrest.

“The eugenics movement is one that’s on humanity and disabled people, Black and poor people — we must tell and retell,” said Rebeca Hoyt, disability rights and services specialist for the City of Madison and the Department of Civil Rights.

Nicole Nelson, an associate professor in the Department of Medical History & Bioethics, discussed the history of eugenics at UW-Madison. 

“It was really animal breeding that ended up being the center of, or the beginning of this study," Nelson said. "In 1910, the university’s genetics department was originally established as the ‘Department of Experimental Breeding.'’’  

“In my research, I have had to come into contact with information about the fact that the history of Down Syndrome in the United States intersects with the legacy of eugenics- shaped the culture we’re operating on,” said Tiffany Glass, friend of the CDAI committee and a research scientist. 

Butcher shared Van Hise once said, “Eugenics is the best means of conserving human resources,” in his speech “Conservation of Human Resources” that explained his stance on the issue.  “It was clear he was reading and engaging individuals as sub-human and didn't recognize their humanity,” she said.  

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Van Hise interacted with other notable names in academia who supported the initiatives of eugenics, Butcher said. His interactions with others involved pushing ideas of Darwinism, and these ideas were what motivated him to explore eugenics as noted in letters with his wife, according to Butcher.

However, during the 1960s, not many people were consulted when the building was initially named, Van Aarsten noted. 

“One cannot overlook his promotion of eugenics, and with that, exclusion,” added Forrest.

Van Aarsten said the process of proposing the plaque is in its final stages, as the CDAI is editing the plaque’s language and size and seeking final approval from university administration and the Board of Regents. 

“Thankfully, UW has a policy regarding plaque proposals,” Aarsten said. “At this point, we are working to finalize the language on the plaque before we put the proposal through.”

“Essentially, a department or an organization on campus needs to be a financial responsibility party for the plaque,” Van Aarsten explained on receiving funding for the plaque. 

“We see this as really like a first step in terms of trying to draw awareness to the issue, educate the community and really kind of involve others in the effort too in terms of what the next steps are,” Van Aarsten said. 

The CDAI encouraged students and locals to share feedback to 

 Editor's note: This article was updated and changed at 10:45a.m. on Tuesday, Mar. 7.  

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