Past presidents and chancellors

  1. John Hiram Lathrop

    Lathrop served as the University of Wisconsin’s first Chancellor from 1849–1858. He was responsible for establishing the academic setting, which the Board of Regents soon found to be lacking in rigor and practical application. Lathrop designed the university’s first official seal with an upturned eye and the motto “Numen lumen,” which he translated as “God our light.” The motto remains obscure and controversial to this day.

  2. Henry Barnard

    Barnard, a national leader in education, held the office of chancellor only from 1859–1860. Though hired to oversee the restructuring of Wisconsin’s educational system, he did not fulfill these high hopes. Barnard actually spent more than half of his tenure outside of the state due to illness and travel, and never moved his family to Madison. His appointment, however, shows the commitment of the Board of Regents to creating a strong academic institution in Wisconsin.

  3. John Whelan Sterling

    Though he has been called “the Father of the University,” Sterling never was named chancellor. He acted as executive officer, dean of faculty and vice chancellor from 1861–1867, guiding the university through both the Civil War and a period of financial difficulty. Sterling was the only other faculty member when John Lathrop opened the university in 1849, and he remained involved until his sudden death in 1885.

  4. Paul Ansel Chadbourne

    In 1866 the Wisconsin legislature passed an act to enlarge and restructure the university, including its curriculum, faculty and students. Chadbourne became the first chief executive, now called president, of the newly reorganized university in 1867. During his three-year tenure, Chadbourne laid the groundwork for all future growth and development of the university. Opposed to co-education, he established separate facilities for female students.

  5. John Hanson Twombly

    Twombly served as president from 1871–1874. Largely self-educated, Twombly spent most of his life working as a pastor. He got along well with UW faculty and staff, and he favored co-education. His presidency is considered a failure, however, because the Board and Regents disagreed with him about the co-education issue and never granted him any real authority to govern.

  6. John A. Bascom

    Between 1874 and 1887, Bascom built the University of Wisconsin into a solid academic institution. A scholar who continued teaching throughout his presidency, Bascom believed that university graduates have a moral responsibility to improve society. He also supported Prohibition and the idea that the Board of Regents need not meddle in the daily affairs of the university. Not surprisingly, he clashed with regents over both issues.

  7. Thomas Chrowder Chamberlin

    Born in Illinois but raised and educated in Beloit, Wisconsin, Chamberlin was the first president to hail from the Midwest. He held office from 1887–1892, reluctantly putting aside his work as the country’s leading glaciologist. Chamberlin encouraged graduate education, attracted national caliber faculty to the university and is generally credited with moving Wisconsin from a college to a university.

  8. Charles Kendall Adams

    As president from 1892–1901, Adams continued building a strong faculty of nationally recognized scholars, and enrollment ballooned. Adams’s relationship with state and local governments enabled him to fund several building projects, including the Wisconsin Historical Society, the Armory and Gymnasium (Red Gym), a new law building and the soils building. He suffered from serious health problems during his last two years in office.

  9. Edward Asahel Birge

    Birge, who was dean of the College of Letters and Science, served as acting president of the university from 1900–1903. He stood in for Adams during his lengthy illness, as well as after his death, but did not actively campaign for the presidency.

  10. Charles Richard Van Hise

    Van Hise received the first Ph.D. (in geology) granted by the UW, was the firstUW alumnus to head the university, and was the longest serving leader of the university, holding the office of president from 1903–1918. A student of John Bascom, Van Hise felt that the university should serve the entire state’s population. This belief evolved into the Wisconsin Idea. Van Hise led the university through the World War Ⅰ years and oversaw tremendous growth as the faculty more than tripled and income quadrupled. During his long tenure, Van Hise established the graduate school, the medical school and the university extension division.

  11. Edward Asahel Birge

    After Van Hise’s sudden death, Edward Asahel Birge returned to the helm. This time he served as president from 1918–1925, when he retired after 50 years of service to the university. During both of his terms, he simply stayed the course, pushing neither for change nor increased revenues. A dedicated scholar, Birge is considered America’s first great limnologist.

  12. Glenn Frank

    Frank, who served from 1925–1937, at age 37 was the youngest person elected president of UW–Madison, and the only one without an advanced degree or academic experience. His tenure was marred by repeated clashes with the politically powerful La Follette family. This animosity ultimately led to his dismissal, as he refused to resign. Though Frank was a strong supporter of academic freedom and tenure, the faculty did not respect him.

  13. George Clark Sellery

    Sellery, a critic of Frank, served as acting president for six months after Frank’s removal in 1937. Sellery’s longer-lasting contribution to theUW was as dean of the College of Letters and Sciences, a position he held from 1919 until his retirement in 1942.

  14. Clarence Addison Dykstra

    Dykstra, who served from 1937–1945, had more experience in municipal management than academia, but he proved a skillful administrator and politician, managing to avoid major controversy during his tenure. President Roosevelt named him the first head of the Selective Service System in 1940, and he became chairman of the new National Defense Mediation Board in 1941, but he still managed to guide theUW through the difficult World War Ⅱ years.

  15. Edwin Broun Fred

    Fred oversaw tremendous growth as president from 1945–1958: Enrollment doubled, research spending grew eightfold and twenty-four new buildings sprang up. An able administrator and a leading bacteriologist, Fred was a firm believer in the Wisconsin Idea. He guided the growth of the Extension Project and opened the UW–Milwaukee campus in 1956.

  16. Conrad Arnold Elvehjem

    Except for one year as a National Research Council Fellow at Cambridge University, Elvehjem spent his entire academic career at the UW, including his undergraduate and graduate years. An agricultural chemist, Elvehjem is best known for isolating niacin in the late 1930s. As president from 1958–1962, he oversaw the continued expansion of both the university and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation.

  17. Fred Harvey Harrington

    Harrington served as president from 1962–1970. He decided that the university had grown unwieldy, and thus reorganized it into one central administration, with separate administrations for the individual campuses in Madison and Milwaukee, and for the University Centers. Harrington laid the groundwork for the future merger of the UW and the Wisconsin State Universities. He presided over the difficult early Vietnam War years and was in office at the time of the Sterling Hall bombing.

  18. Robert LeRoy Clodius

    Fred Harrington named Clodius acting provost in 1963, making Clodius the first person to lead the newly restructured UW–Madison campus. He served in this capacity for only 18 months, but his career at the university spanned 40 years.

  19. Robben Wright Fleming

    Fleming had two titles during his tenure as the head of UW–Madison, serving as provost from 1964–1965 and as chancellor from 1965–1967. He was chancellor during the early Vietnam War days, and protestors blockaded his office during demonstrations against the Dow Chemical Company in February 1967.

  20. William Hamilton Sewell

    Sewell, who served as chancellor from 1967–1968, took charge of a badly divided campus. After police tear-gassed students who were protesting employment interviews by Dow Chemical Company, Sewell suspended the interviews pending a student/faculty review. He then spent almost a year trying to resign. Sewell was far happier in his role as distinguished sociologist, and his Wisconsin Longitudinal Study is known as one of the longest-running sociological studies in the country.

  21. Bryant Eastham Kearl

    Kearl served as acting chancellor from July 1–Sept. 12, 1968. He was vice chancellor under William Sewell and Edwin Young (1967–70) and again under Irving Shain (1977–83). In 1983 Kearl became the first dean of the Division of Outreach, charged with integrating the university and Madison-based UW–Extension programs. Kearl was very active internationally, and he helped establish many of the university’s international programs.

  22. Hugh Edwin Young

    Young presided over the Madison campus during most of the Vietnam War era and the student protests in Madison, serving from 1968–1977. The University of Wisconsin System was also formed during his administration. Young was not particularly in favor of the merger of the UW and the Wisconsin State Universities, and he worked to ensure that individual campuses retained as much autonomy as possible.

  23. John Carrier Weaver

    Weaver became president of the University of Wisconsin in January 1971 and was instrumental in the formation of the University of Wisconsin System, created in October of that year. After its formation he served as president of the University of Wisconsin System until 1977.

  24. Glenn Simpson Pound

    Pound served as acting chancellor from July–October 1977 during the search to replace Edwin Young. In 1964, Pound was appointed dean of the College of Agriculture and continued in that position until 1979, presiding during a period of great growth in the college and a name change to the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.

  25. Irving Shain

    Shain, who had served as vice chancellor of UW–Madison from 1970–1975, took office as chancellor in November 1977. The University Research Park was established during his administration, and he began student exchange programs with the People’s Republic of China. He retired from the university at the end of 1986.

  26. Bernard Cecil Cohen

    Cohen served as acting chancellor during 1987 between the administrations of Irving Shain and Donna Shalala. He had a distinguished career as a political scientist and served as chair of the department from 1966–1969, associate dean of the Graduate School from 1971–1975 and vice chancellor for academic affairs from 1984–1986 and 1988–1989.

  27. Donna Edna Shalala

    Shalala took the office of chancellor in January 1988, becoming the second woman to lead a major research university and the first woman head of a Big Ten university. She initiated the Madison Plan to enhance efforts to recruit and hire minorities, and was a strong advocate for UW athletics. She stepped down as chancellor in January 1993 to become secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services under President Clinton.

  28. David Ward

    Born in England, Ward received his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin in 1963 and returned to Wisconsin in 1966 as an assistant professor of geography. During his tenure as chancellor from 1993–2000, he worked to enhance technology transfer, expand international education and increase collaboration among departments. He also launched partnerships to build state-of-the-art research facilities that could, in turn, attract nationally recognized faculty. After stepping down as chancellor, he became president of the American Council on Education.

  29. John D. Wiley

    Wiley, who began his tenure as chancellor in 2001, has more than four decades of experience with UW–Madison, having been a graduate student, a professor and an administrator during his illustrious university career. A prominent figure in higher education, he chairs both the Big Ten Council of Presidents and Chancellors, and the board for the Council on Higher Education Accreditation. He is a member of the National Security Higher Education Advisory Committee.

  30. Carolyn A. “Biddy” Martin

    Martin began her chancellorship in September 2008, coming to Madison after serving as provost at Cornell University from 2000-2008. Martin received her Ph.D. in German literature from UW–Madison in 1985. While chancellor, she created the Madison Initiative for Undergraduates to improve the quality and affordability of an undergraduate education, championed need-based student aid, created a common-reading program, sought new administrative flexibilities and defended the university’s role as a global public research institution.

  31. David Ward

    Ward returned to campus in 2011 to serve as interim chancellor during a search for Martin’s successor. He held the position until summer 2013. During his two-year tenure, he worked to improve the dialogue between administration and governance groups, and encouraged the campus to focus on innovation by exploring new ways to deliver education, developing efficiencies in administrative activities and redesigning the human resources system.

  32. Rebecca M. Blank

    Blank became chancellor in July 2013, bringing with her a deep commitment to educational excellence and innovation. An internationally respected economist, Blank served in three presidential administrations before arriving on campus. Among the highlights of her tenure was the expansion of access to Wisconsin students through Bucky Tuition Promise, the All Ways Forward campaign, which raised more than $4 billion to support university initiatives, an emphasis on revenue generation and fiscal stability, and steady leadership through the global COVID-19 pandemic.

  33. John Karl Scholz

    Scholz served as interim chancellor for two months in 2022 between the administrations of Rebecca Blank and Jennifer Mnookin (from June 1 through August 3). Scholz was provost at the time and returned to that position upon Mnookin’s arrival. A native of Nebraska, Scholz graduated from Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., and earned his doctorate from Stanford University. He joined the UW–Madison Economics Department in 1988. Scholz began serving as provost in August 2019 after six years as the dean of the College of Letters & Science.

For more information and photographs of these individuals, visit the UW Archives.