Testing new structures and further developments

The new management structures were not set in stone. It was obvious that many things still had to be tested, such as the functionality of the newly created institutional architecture. Although the University Act laid down a certain basic framework, it was possible to seek changes in the University Statute without having to once again mobilize the legislative machinery of two cantons. In some cases, completing the statute became a true power struggle between opposing interests.

For instance, the position of the Planning Commission, to be staffed by the faculties and university groups, was not sufficiently clarified: Was it a body with some independence, supported by the organs of academic self-governance whose interests it represented? Or was it a management body supporting the Rectorate? The strategic and operational leadership of the Rectorate and the University Council tended toward the second interpretation: they wanted to establish a structure that was more clearly hierarchical. Yet considerable resistance to the broad range of real or intended reforms sprung up from parts of the university, especially the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences. They argued for a “parliamentarization” of the university’s internal structures, with the Rectorate being subordinated to the Senate, which elected the rector but otherwise possessed mainly advisory functions. The view of the Rectorate was that such a solution would have called into question the more efficient management model that had just been established. Given this resistance, however, the University Council declined plans to give the Rectorate even more authority, as the board had hope to achieve.

Before comprises broadly acceptable to everyone could be achieved, these antagonisms at times became acute. In the years 2002 to 2004, a number of conflicts converged while also spilling beyond the university to become more public issues, for several reasons.

Financial problems
In addition to these disagreements over governance structures, ongoing financial pressures also emerged: the expectations and hopes that the university would be able to expand the base of its financial support with equal funding from both cantons, which the 1994 University Agreement had named as a medium-term goal, initially remained unfulfilled. As a result, the additional financial relief from Basel-City that many were counting on also became increasingly uncertain. The city was no longer prepared to make financial “advance payments”; politically speaking, the most the university could hope for given the general climate of austerity was for funding from the canton to be maintained at previous levels.

The situation was more difficult for the canton of Basel-Countryside, which faced considerably increased expenditures. The prevailing view here was that the issue of university funding could not be considered separately from other pending issues of partnership between the cantons. The situation was further complicated by several changes in the personnel of the relevant government departments in both cantons. For the university, this meant that the existing plans for expansion, as expressed in several strategy papers, could hardly be realized for the time being.

The beginning of the Bologna reforms
Moreover, following the turn of the millennium, the restructuring of university teaching in line with the Bologna model, as decided on the European level, loomed on the horizon. The University of Basel was well prepared for this shift, having made fundamental strides in reforming its teaching since 1996. The Rectorate immediately took on a direct role in meeting this challenge, but the effort it demanded was considerable and enthusiasm for the changes was not ubiquitous. After an initial silence, criticism started to grow, especially in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, spilling into press reports starting in 2002. This discontent quickly combined with accumulated resentment over the alleged authoritarian tendencies in the Rectorate and University Council. The local press at times deliberately decided to function as a “forum” for the opposition, giving the impression that conflicts had broken out at the university that were now beyond control.

Compounding conflicts: the portfolio decision
The tone and intensity of the dispute became even more heated when the Rectorate and University Council, under continuing financial pressure, felt compelled to make substantial cuts at the beginning of 2004, in what was dubbed the portfolio decision. To retain some flexibility at all in university planning, they initiated targeted reductions in several disciplines and departments, so as to enable expansion at least in certain other subjects. Understandably, the programs slated for downsizing defended themselves, and a large demonstration on Basel’s Marktplatz gave the protest wide publicity. The Rectorate and University Council faced unprecedented criticism.

The vociferous dispute over the university portfolio at least had the – absolutely intended – effect of speeding up the tough negotiations between the cantons. After the strident confrontation at the beginning of 2004, however, the disagreement calmed down surprisingly quickly. The University Council, primarily responsible in this matter, proved willing to compromise; it delegated the responsibility for making the desired budget cuts to the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences itself, where they would have the most impact. The faculty, in turn, adjusted to the bitter necessities. This facilitated the finding of compromise solutions. At the same time, the university and university management put renewed pressure on the cantons, reminding them of their promises. When the news came in the fall of 2004 that the cantons had agreed to jointly and equally fund the university from the beginning of 2007, a great deal of the burden facing the institution was lifted and the situation eased.

Before the agreement between the cantons could be signed in 2006, however, tough negotiations were needed to resolve the many detailed issues. Still, when the agreement faced the voters in Basel-Countryside in March 2007, the result was remarkable majority of 85 percent in favor.

Dynamic development
While the media-fueled public dispute sometimes gave the impression that the university was on the brink of paralysis, this was by no means the case. Despite financial difficulties and controversies that were sometimes fierce, the university embarked on a distinctly dynamic program of development during these years. This growth took place in the context of increased competition among Swiss universities and an increased willingness of the Confederation to intervene.

The number of students in Basel increased more quickly than at other institutions, with a majority being women. The progress in matters of gender equality, the new departments covering new disciplines, and the consistently and comparatively early introduction of the Bologna reforms clearly earned the university a positive reputation, which was recognized and valued by students. The 2006 agreement between the cantons also succeeded in improving the integration of research and teaching at the Faculty of Medicine into the overall university organization. A significant part of research at the University of Basel goes into this area, making a solution here especially important.

Not yet realized, but with their contours taking shape, a number of construction projects are set to further consolidate the university’s presence at various locations in the city. After they are completed, the new buildings will become the property of the university, which has had its own real estate fund since 2003, providing it more freedom in this area, as well.