Big ambitions, not much money: university funding in the institution’s early years

Establishing a university has always entailed securing its funding, and financial issues continued to be a concern for many years, affecting both the university’s possibilities for development and its relationship with the city.

The favorable constellation in 1458 offering Basel the opportunity to found a university was accompanied by early deliberations on how to position this new institution within the system of European universities, or at least within the German-speaking lands.

The direction of the newly founded university and the acquisition of the papal privilege for its foundation
The petition dated 10 September 1459 in which the City Council appealed to the pope for permission to establish a university with all faculties expressly stated a desire to organize the university after the model of Bologna. It was thus a programmatic statement. While the contemporaneous establishment of the University of Freiburg looked to Vienna and the northern Alpine university model, Basel aimed for a blend, attempting to combine the Bologna model from the renowned Italian universities of law, which primarily served an aristocratic clientele, with the four-faculty model of the German universities founded in the late medieval period.

Interestingly, the petition asking the pope to issue such a privilege to Basel and serve as the university’s founding patron did not initially include a request for endowments, but limited its focus to legal and statutory matters in referencing to the Bologna model. Yet this decision did have socioeconomic implications, in particular regarding the new university’s potential clientele. As the delicate issue of money soon became more pressing, the City Council stood by its proposal, deciding quickly on 10 October to accept the anticipated papal approval to found the new institution. Aided by the dean of the Basel Cathedral, Johann Werner von Flachslanden, who enjoyed the special trust of Pius II as papal chamberlain, the City Council made vigorous efforts to indeed pursue the acquisition of a founding charter.

It is clear from the instructions given to Flachslanden that at this time the city did not, at this point, consider the granting of ecclesiastical benefices to be a precondition for founding a university. The discreetly phrased mandate to the dean of the Basel Cathedral, directing him to influence the pope to incorporate benefices as an endowment for the university, either at the two church institutions in Basel, the cathedral and St. Peter’s, or elsewhere in the diocese, or in Strasbourg, shows that for the moment Basel politicians had decided to treat financial issues as secondary. The Founding Charter dated 12 November 1459 accordingly lacked any reference to a material endowment, and the pope assumed the role of founding patron even as Basel had only vague prospects for the funding the new institution would require.

Debates about funding in the Basel City Council
Alongside these developments, intensive discussions about fundamental issues related to the new institution were underway in the Basel City Council. By autumn 1459, the council had sought four legal reports from scholars – all of which recommended that it be founded, with cost estimates ranging from some 600 to 3,000 guilders per year, depending on the university’s size and infrastructure. Despite the decision already made by the council, and the fact that intensive efforts were already underway to acquire a founding charter, disputes still arose at the beginning of November about the new institution’s economic security. Suggestions were made that the founding of the new university should ultimately depend upon the incorporation of benefices by the pope. In a decision made on 17 November, the council resolved to ask the pope to grant benefices in the total amount of about 1,600 guilders. This negotiating position was soon abandoned, however, by 26 November, after the chapters of the Basel Cathedral and St. Peter’s Church each agreed to endow the university with two benefices. The instructions from the council now read: “Et si illa summa forsan obtineri non posset, obtineatur quantum potest” – “And if perhaps that sum could not be obtained, get as much as possible.”

Nevertheless, these discussions in the City Council had made the city’s financial concerns and hopes very clear, as can be seen from a corresponding memorandum by Kienlin, the city scribe. Queried once again about the founding of the university, the scholars who had authored the legal reports emphasized not only the honor a university would bring to the city and the idealistic-Christian value of a “studium generale,” but above all and in great detail the practical material benefit that was to be expected from its founding. Despite the fact that future students would be exempt from taxes and other levies, the scholars calculated that they would each spend an average of at least 20 guilders per year, amounting to 1,000 guilders for 500 students, or even 2,000 guilders for 1,000 students, which would flow into the city’s economy. In contrast, initial costs for faculty – assuming the benefices had not yet been incorporated and realized – would be about 600 guilders, a sum that would initially allow the hiring of ten masters.

The deputies and both councils compared, as one reads, “the sweet and the sour,” discussing detailed arguments for and against the new institution in political and financial terms. In the end, proponents of the new university prevailed. Efforts to establish the institution continued apace, and before the end of the year, on 26 December, Basel succeeded in obtaining a bull from Pius II, who had reacted with reticence toward the incorporation requests. Among its effects, the document granted the university benefices in the dioceses of Constance, Lausanne, and Basel through the incorporation of five canonries in Zurich, Zofingen, Solothurn, Colmar, and St. Ursanne, with expected revenues amounting to 290 guilders. Actually incorporating these benefices, however, would occupy the university for decades to come, with the city failing to achieve anything even close to complete success.

The costs of establishing the university up until 1462
From the book recording the decisions of the City Council, we know that set-up costs from the summer of 1458 to the summer of 1462 – which included expenses for the representatives sent abroad to plead the city’s case, costs to acquire privileges and bulls, the purchase of the Lower College, recruitment costs and wages for teaching staff, costs for the university scepter, renovation work on the college building, and a goblet as an honorary gift for Johann Werner von Flachslanden for his diplomatic efforts with the pope – amounted to a total of 2,847 pounds, 12 shillings, and 10 pennies. For context: this equated to more than one-tenth of the city’s budget in 1460/61, of 22,550 pounds. 

Hiring policy and funding needs
The legal report written by Heinrich von Beinheim had calculated that, at its start, the university would need three doctors of theology; three jurists of canon law, one professor responsible for secular law; one doctor of medicine; and six masters of arts. And in fact, the city accounts of 1461/62 list, by name, expenses for eleven faculty members, including five lawyers, one professor of medicine, and three scholars in the Faculty of Liberal Arts. In the following years, the accounts name between eight and fourteen teaching faculty; from 1468/69, the number drops to six and finally to three by the mid-1470s. The information from the city accounts on faculty salaries nevertheless provides an incomplete picture of university expenditures, as these documents per se did not include total university income.

Although the founding of the university raised financial concerns from the outset, Basel had opted for the comparatively costly option of a strong Faculty of Law based on the Italian model. This decision thus entailed recruiting Italian law professors in the run-up to the university’s founding, with much higher salaries than the German masters. In 1464/65, for example, the jurist Johannes Augustinus de Vicomercato – a star in Basel at the time – earned more than twice as much as his second best-paid colleague, the jurist Johann Helmich from Cologne. Numerous letters have been preserved from the first years of the Faculty of Law that concern the recruitment of Italian lecturers and their often-unattainable salary demands for Basel.

Difficulties in incorporating the benefices
During the planning phase for the new university, the City Council had drawn up a list of twenty benefices that it hoped to secure for its funding. Plans had to be scaled back, however, when attempts were made to incorporate the benefices that had in fact been granted. As noted above, the city did succeed in obtaining papal benefices from five canonries (in Zurich, Zofingen, Solothurn, Colmar, and St. Ursanne) in three dioceses (Constance, Lausanne, and Basel), with an annual income of 290 guilders. For Basel, however, as was also the case for other newly founded universities, such as in Freiburg, actually realizing these incorporations proved difficult. In the following years and decades, the City Council made repeated efforts to appoint professors (doctors and masters) to the incorporated benefices. For example, in 1460 deputies of the council attempted to achieve the election of the jurist Johannes Grütsch as a canon of the Felix and Regula Foundation in Zurich, only to be continually stymied by the city. Shortly thereafter, another attempt at incorporation failed in the face of Solothurn’s diplomatically skillful opposition. Even in 1504, after joining the Confederacy, Basel tried unsuccessfully to assert its claims to benefices on confederation territory. After numerous attempts, the city eventually had to settle for revenues from Sissach and Rümlingen, from the Chapel of the Holy Cross in Kleinbasel, and from St. Peter’s Church. For the first fifty years after the university was founded, however, it is unclear in what form and to what extent income was received from the benefices and if so, whether it was direct or indirect.

Similar difficulties as those experienced by Basel with the external canonries generally arose when attempts were made to repurpose collegiate chapters for the benefit of universities: this was the case in Freiburg as well as in Cologne, Heidelberg, and Tübingen. In Basel, too, protracted disputes arose between the collegiate chapter and the university over the benefices attached to St. Peter’s Church. The resulting tensions between the chapter and the city led to confrontations that included the violent and boisterous disruption of a chapter meeting by laymen in 1461. And even though the chapter subsequently formally renounced all its benefices in favor of the university, it was able to retain indirect control over the benefice holders through the chapter, thereby bypassing the university’s selection. It was not until the fundamental reorganization following the Reformation that the incorporation could actually be realized and the collegiate endowment be used to fund the university. Marchal sees the widespread difficulty in incorporating collegiate foundations, and even individual canonries into the university, as stemming from a fundamental incompatibility in the perceptions of the two affected institutions, with one view devoted to teaching and studying and another to ceremonial religious services.

The city budget and the university
After the first investments required during the university’s opening years, regular expenses peaked at 922 pounds in 1464/65. Most of this amount was spent on fourteen faculty salaries (the highest figure mentioned in the city accounts until 1534/35). The jurist Vicomercato mentioned above, for instance, who stayed in Basel for just one year, alone received a total of 231 pounds. On average, the city spent about 600 pounds annually on faculty salaries during the initial period up to 1467/68, with this amount dropping quite rapidly to 200 to 300 pounds per year and reaching the lowest level in 1505/06 at 86 pounds for two members of the faculty. After that, the number of teachers and the salary they required once again increased, amounting to a regular expense of 325 pounds annually from 1509/10. During the three tumultuous Reformation years between 1529/30 and 1531/32, five teachers were still receiving 280 pounds annually.

In 1507, the city reorganized its financial relations with the university, deciding during a period of shrinking city budgets to allocate 200 guilders or 253 pounds annually as a “benevolence” for faculty salaries. In return, the revenues from the benefices – which had replaced the services previously rendered by their holders since 1504 – were integrated into the city’s budget. The result was a net burden to the city for the university of 96 guilders. In return, the members of the university had to renounce their exemption from the meat tax, in addition to paying the flour tax, which had been imposed since 1474 despite the terms granted by the university’s Letter of Freedoms. Over the twenty-four years between 1507 and 1531, the city was able to cover a third of its expenses for the university from benefice income.

Comparing the expectations and plans during the founding years, when there was willingness to invest significant funds in the new enterprise, it becomes clear especially in matters relating to university funding that a downsizing occurred. This shift brought a more regional scope for the institution in a number of ways. Securing external benefices proved to be practically impossible, essentially limiting the financial basis for the university to benefices in Basel and the surrounding area. The attempt to shape the institution after the Italian model of a law university geared toward the higher estates was abandoned in favor of a structure modeled on Erfurt, which also entailed hiring fewer Italian jurists as professors in Basel. The high density of universities in southwestern Germany, especially after the foundation of the University of Tübingen in 1477, led to declining enrollment numbers in Basel, with Freiburg surpassing Basel in student numbers beginning around 1500. Finally, even after Basel joined the Old Swiss Confederacy in 1501, the city did not manage to become the first choice for Swiss student and thus something akin to a Swiss national university.