Awakenings and crises

In its 550-year history, the university has repeatedly gone through phases of awakening and stagnation, experiencing difficult and even existential crises while also managing to make several new starts.

Following the successful founding period of the university, the first conflicts arose not only over costs but also over the university model to be adopted in Basel. Major difficulties emerged in the run-up to Basel’s accession to the Old Swiss Confederacy in 1501, when the first discussions erupted over whether Basel should continue to have a university at all.

The Reformation period became an existential trial for the university, at the time still heavily influenced by the clergy. Yet it gained international prominence, particularly because of its relative openness to various confessions.

The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were characterized by stronger regionalization and a concentration of influence and university positions among several key families in Basel. During these two centuries, the university’s tense relationship with the authorities also necessitated constant negotiations. Both sides insisted on their positions in the many repeated, and repeatedly unsuccessful, discussions about reforms.

Following the French Revolution and establishment of the Helvetic Republic, the university once again found itself facing calls for its abolition. The danger was initially averted in 1818 through a reorganization, following a trend set abroad. Just fifteen years later, however, the division of Basel into two separate cantons again posed significant challenges that could be met only through the extraordinary commitment of Basel’s citizens.

A third discussion about abolishing the university erupted in 1851, in the context of demands that higher education be more practical in orientation and come under federal centralization, with a trade school being proposed to replace the university. This would remain the last general discussion about entirely abolishing the university, while the twentieth century was characterized more by university growth. Despite the increasingly difficult political situation, reforms that had long been under discussion were finalized in 1937 with the new University Act. Both World Wars posed special political and social challenges for the University of Basel – a history marked by moments of adaptation and resistance that has remained little explored. Educational reform and the 1968 student movement that spread throughout Europe also led to changes at the university.

However, the most significant change in the recent institutional history of the University of Basel came with the discussions in the 1980s and 90s about autonomy, ultimately resulting in joint sponsorship of the university by the cantons of Basel-City and Basel-Countryside in 2007.