The Forum and Artists Series at UW-Eau Claire has been bringing a diverse collection of knowledge and culture to campus officially since 1942, but its actual roots run much deeper.
Before the concept was formally conceived, the then Eau Claire State Normal School would invite lecturers with varied fields of expertise to speak at assemblies. It was one of the talking points in the 1916 course catalogue, designed to attract prospective members of the first class: “During the school year, a number of lectures will be given before the student body, by men and women of state and national reputation.” As time went on, musicians and acting troupes were also added to the list of invitees who appeared at assemblies for the cultural enrichment of students. Working through a booking agency in Chicago, President Harvey Schofield hired lecturers to speak on topics ranging from astronomy to the state of politics in Nazi-era Europe, along with musicians who entertained students with everything from big band music to bird calls. The college was treated every Tuesday to a difference performance, while assemblies for the rest of the week were occupied with announcements and official business.
It was in 1942 when newly appointed President William R. Davies took the concept further. Davies, who strove to create a more sophisticated college atmosphere, sought to enlarge his students’ world view—and indeed that of the community at large—through education beyond the classroom. A local “forum” of sorts—what Hilda Belle Oxby remembered as a “knife and fork club”—held meetings with pre-selected speakers, but Davies felt that the idea could be expanded with better organization and more community support. Oxby, a member of the college’s first faculty, was a major player in establishing the Chippewa Valley Forum that year. She headed the first Forum committee, which included Dorellen Haas, wife of future Chancellor Leonard Haas, as its first secretary. The committee invited about five speakers per year to the Forum, where lecturers would speak for an hour before answering questions for half an hour, and then attend a reception afterwards. Speakers at these first few Forums included authors Sinclair Lewis and Lewis Browne, editor and journalist Norman Cousins, and monologist Ruth Draper.
Since those early days, the Forum and Artists Series has invited hundreds of speakers and artists of social, intellectual, and cultural importance to speak before eager crowds of students and non-students alike. Over seventy years of lectures and performances have made it one of the highlights of the connection between UW-Eau Claire and the surrounding community.