Charles Van Hise has the distinctions of receiving the first PhD degree granted by the University of Wisconsin (1892, geology), being the first UW alumnus to head the university, and being the longest serving leader of the university.
Van Hise was born on May 29, 1857, near Fulton, Wisconsin. He received four degrees from the University of Wisconsin: bachelor of metallurgical engineering (1879), BS (1880), MS (1882) and PhD (1892). He joined the faculty in 1879 as an assistant in metallurgy and chemistry and remained with the university for the rest of his life.
Van Hise, who was then professor of geology, was elected president by the Board of Regents on April 21, 1903, at least partly at the urging of Governor Robert La Follette, and inaugurated on June 5, 1904 as part of the Jubilee 50th Anniversary celebrations. Both Van Hise and La Follette, who had been classmates at Wisconsin and students of John Bascom, felt that the university should benefit the entire state, and Van Hise helped develop this concept into the Wisconsin Idea, including founding the university extension division.
Van Hise also oversaw a reorganization of the university in 1904 that included the establishment of a graduate division and the founding of the Medical School. He led the university through the difficult years of World War I, including defending the university against charges of disloyalty and a falling out with La Follette over the latter’s opposition to the war.
During his tenure the faculty increased from 200 to 750, and the university’s income quadrupled. Van Hise died unexpectedly in Milwaukee on November 19, 1918, following what was considered minor surgery.