Our History

The Wisconsin Idea

As a land-grant institution, the University of Wisconsin–Madison has a long history of public service. Indeed, the Wisconsin Idea, first articulated by President Charles Van Hise, has served as a touchstone for the University as it has fulfilled its teaching, research, and service missions. To extend the University’s knowledge and expertise to communities everywhere is an idea that has always been embedded in the minds of many of our faculty, students, staff and university leaders.

Public service for the greater good of society has been a longstanding goal. In the 1960s, the Wisconsin Union added student volunteer activities to its portfolio. By 1972, the Volunteer Services Office (VSO) was established at Union South. A recruiting office for the Peace Corps was established in the early 1960s and continues today with large numbers of our new graduates signing up for international service.

The Morgridge Center for Public Service is Born

John and Tashia Morgridge

In 1994, an initiative was launched to expand the scope of the VSO into a University Center for Community Service. Chancellor David Ward appointed a committee co-chaired by Sociology Professor Gary Sandefur and Dean of Students Mary Rouse to create an official proposal. The proposal was presented to two UW–Madison alumni, John and Tashia Morgridge, in May 1994. They strongly supported the proposal and gave a generous endowment. In their honor, the name was changed to the Morgridge Center for Public Service and the Center officially opened in 1996.

When the historic preservation and adaptive use of the Armory and Gymnasium (Red Gym) was completed, the Morgridge Center moved to the first floor, a highly visible and centrally located space.

The Morgridge Center’s first acting director was Susan Dibbell (1996-1999). In July 2000, Mary Rouse resigned as the Dean of Students and assumed the role of Morgridge Center Director. At this time, the Morgridge Center was also directly linked to both the Wisconsin Union and the Office of the Provost. The connection to the Wisconsin Union ensured broad student participation in a myriad of volunteer activities through the Wisconsin Union Directorate student-led committees, namely the Community Service and the Alternative Breaks Committees. The connection to the Provost’s Office encouraged the use of academic service-learning and community-based research as progressive teaching and learning methods by faculty and instructional staff

Mary Rouse served as director of the Morgridge Center until July 2005. Upon her retirement, the leadership structure of the center was revised, moving away from a full-time academic staff director position to a half-time faculty director position. Given the fact that the UW–Madison is a faculty-driven institution of higher education, and because one of the center’s primary goals focused on increasing the number of academic service-learning and Community-based Research opportunities on campus, it was decided to institute a faculty director model at this point in our evolution. In August 2005, Prof. Michael Thornton, professor Afro-American Studies, Asian American Studies and Sociology, was selected as the Morgridge Center’s first half-time faculty director, serving a 3-5 year term.

The Morgridge Center for Public Service Grows

In fall 2007, the Morgridge family significantly increased the Morgridge Center endowment and challenged the staff to expand and strengthen its fundraising efforts by offering to match up to $1 million/year over a five-year period. These funds were to be used to support a major expansion of programs and services, particularly in the curricular arena: academic service-learning, Community-based Research and engaged scholarship.

In March 2009, the Morgridge Center officially joined the School of Human Ecology while maintaining a campus-wide focus. In 2010, Mike Thorton’s five-year term as the Morgridge Center’s Director came to a close and the Morgridge Center welcomed Nancy Mathews as the new faculty director.

Nancy Mathews

In the fall of 2011, the Morgridge Center moved administratively to the School of Education while maintaining a campus-wide mission. Under Nancy Mathew’s leadership, the Morgridge Center doubled its office space in the Red Gym and hired a number of new full-time staff members. Nancy Mathews stepped down from the position of director in June 2014 to take a job as dean at the University of Vermont.

Political Science professor and long-time Morgridge Center partner Kathy Cramer was named interim faculty director in June 2014. Ten months later she was officially named the permanent director of the Morgridge Center. Under Kathy’s leadership, the Morgridge Center has continued to develop a strong community of faculty and instructors on campus engaged in Community-based Learning and Research, while also broadening its understanding of public service. Additionally, the Morgridge Center introduced a number of new programs, including the Wisconsin Open Education Community Fellowship and All-Campus Day of Service.

In 2016, the Morgridge Center celebrated its 20th anniversary.

To celebrate, the Morgridge Center hosted a Campus and Community summit for over 200 UW-Madison educators and researchers, students, community leaders and national experts at the Discovery Building featuring Campus Compact President Andrew Seligsohn as the Summit’s keynote speaker. The Morgridge Center conducted a strategic planning process in the spring of 2016 which provided the framework for its plan of action for the next five years.

The Morgridge Center for Public Service Progress: The Next Five Years

In 2017, the Chancellor’s Office tasked the Morgridge Center with implementing the university’s Civic Action Plan, a UW-Madison initiative led by the Morgridge Center to institutionalize and improve the quality of community engagement. 

Faculty Director Dr. Earlise Ward at the Morgridge Center for Public Service
Dr. Earlise Ward

Kathy Cramer transitioned back to the political science faculty in January 2018. Associate Director Lisa Chambers served as interim director until Dr. Earlise Ward began her term as faculty director in January 2019. Dr. Ward is a professor at the School of Nursing and a licensed psychologist, with a PhD in counseling psychology. Under Earlise’s leadership, the Morgridge Center continued advancing its strategic priorities and those outlined in the Civic Action Plan.

The Morgridge Center team led the effort to create a graduate certificate and doctoral minor in Community-Engaged Scholarship at UW-Madison, and the first cohort of students began coursework in the fall of 2019. We also launched the pilot program, Morgridge Fellows, selecting and supporting 10 faculty and instructional staff across campus. The purpose of the Morgridge Fellows program is to further institutionalize and support Community-Engaged Scholarship at UW-Madison. 

In the 2018-19 academic year, the chancellor provided three years of funding for a new community engagement preparation specialist position, in response to a need identified in the Civic Action Plan.

As part of the Civic Action Plan, the four Tenure Divisional Committees approved recommended changes put forth by the Morgridge Center to the Tenure Guidelines to support quality Community-Engaged Scholarship in tenure and promotion cases. In 2020, the Morgridge Center added a voter engagement and civic learning coordinator to its professional staff to help support voter engagement and education across campus and community.

In 2021, the Morgridge Center celebrated its 25th anniversary amid the COVID-19 pandemic.