A search for new directions and visions

Hopes for a substantial improvement in the situation increasingly focused in these years on expanding the joint financial sponsorship by the two Basel cantons. A “university of both Basels” became an often-invoked rhetorical vision for the future.

Expectations of such an expansion had been expressed earlier, during the negotiations on the first university agreement between the cantons in the 1970s, and the vision was explicitly anchored in the 1975 University Agreement. But in the 1980s, the notion of a university of both Basels gained increasing traction in public media and speeches delivered at the Dies academicus or on other occasions. This process can be understood as a preparatory phase in the search for a new direction, out of which converging ideas and concepts gradually emerged, even if concrete initiatives for reform were still a long way off.

“Mankind-Society-Environment” as a catalyst for cooperation
The massive chemical fire at the Schweizerhalle in November 1986 proved to be an important spur for development that exceeded all expectations. Against the backdrop of the Chernobyl disaster in the same year, sensitivities about environmental damage were enormously heightened. Students reacted strongly and, buoyed by widespread public sentiment, demanded a response from the university that would go beyond the immediate aftermath to genuinely address ecological concerns and environmental responsibility. This request was actively supported by Werner Arber’s presidency, producing success in the Senate. The result was the interdisciplinary teaching and research program “Mankind-Society-Environment,” for which conceptual planning was completed by 1988/89. All that was missing was the funding.

But this surprisingly became available in the fall of 1989 when the newly elected director of education for Basel-Countryside, Peter Schmid, announced a “gift” of sixteen million Swiss francs, albeit with conditions. The money was tied to establishing a transparent structure for the program and creating a board of trustees in which the canton of Basel-Countryside would provide the majority of the members. This body, composed of representatives from politics, business, and society, would hold ultimate authority over the program. “Mankind-Society-Environment” (in German: Mensch-Gesellschaft-Umwelt, MGU) thus became an experimental field for new structures and interdisciplinary activities – and moreover a domain where the canton of Basel-Countryside would bear full responsibility for a part of the university for the first time. The success of the project opened doors and reinforced the positive interest in Basel-Countryside in university affairs.

1989 – upheavals in Basel
The year 1989 was a year of world political upheaval; it was also the year in which discussions about the university in Basel finally started to have long-term effects, for a number of reasons. After several years of favorable economic conditions, the finances of both cantons were temporarily in relatively good shape, which increased the scope for reforms that would have a financial impact. Personnel changes in the governments had a stimulating effect. Moreover, everyone was well aware that the existing university agreement would expire at the end of 1995. If something more than a mere extension was to be achieved, it was clear that efforts would have to start sooner rather than later, given that such negotiations tended to be protracted. In 1989, parallel political initiatives in the parliaments of both cantons sought to open negotiations specifically aiming to establish a “university of both Basels.” In both cantons, the parliament and governing officials got on board, and supportive efforts were launched at the university, as well. Rector Carl Rudolf Pfaltz, coming from the Faculty of Medicine (and a steadfast son of Basel-Countryside) created a working group that developed a model for a new, joint institution. The university Oversight Committee (the Kuratel) under the presidency of Karl Heusler also developed a proposal. At the same time, women at the university fought to ensure that their demands for equality and women’s advancement were incorporated into the upcoming reform. The public discussion among influential circles close to the university also intensified, ensuring that the idea of a fundamental reform was anchored among local elites, as well.

Throughout the process, the canton of Basel-Countryside played a decisive role in starting initiatives and maintaining momentum. And by the end of that year, it offered a clear declaration of intent: the canton was willing to offer the university substantially increased support, provided that its structures be thoroughly reformed. The central idea was to free the university from its close ties to the governments of both cantons and give it greater autonomy vis-à-vis government authorities and politicians. Absent such a restructuring, the canton of Basel-Countryside was neither able nor willing to expand its participation in the university.

As a first step in the process, Basel-Countryside also wanted an organizational analysis to be produced by an external group of experts, which would then be used to give the university a more transparent and efficient organizational structure. For this task, it was proposed to engage the well-known management consultants from Hayek Engineering, who had already conducted an analysis of ETH Zurich in the higher education sector.