An excellent question, and one that’s cause for understandable confusion to those who honor our annual celebration of Founders’ Day, which commemorates the first day of classes held at the University of Wisconsin on February 5, 1849. Although students began their studies at the UW in 1849, the institution itself was founded just under a year before that first knell of the school bell. In fact, insofar as dates are concerned, the state of Wisconsin and its flagship university could be considered twins: when Wisconsin received statehood in 1848, its constitution included provisions for “the establishment of a state university, at or near the seat of state government.” As anyone familiar with the university’s origin story knows, this legally mandated “seminary of learning” was well in the works over a decade before its official founding. Territorial assemblies spent much of that time squabbling over the location of the new state’s capital (on land that had been taken from the Ho-Chunk people), that of the university, and the governing body that would oversee it. The short answer: the University of Wisconsin was formally founded in 1848, but it wasn’t until 1849 that it saw the first of generations of students that would shape the university’s legacy as the beacon of higher education and innovation it is today.

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