Regeneration and reconstitution at the University of Basel (1818–1848)

By the time the issue of the university’s closure was publicly debated in Basel, the period of crisis threatening European universities was already nearing its end, helping the Basel Reform Commission develop an even more convincing and lasting proposal, albeit with a five-year delay.

With the new law of 15 June 1818, the University of Basel definitively became a branch of the cantonal education system and thus a part of the state administration. From then on, like all other schools in the canton, it was under the supervision of an Education Council consisting of sixteen members, including the university rector and three professors. The Kuratel – an Oversight Council comprising the president of the City Council and two members of the Education Council – was tasked with continuous oversight of the university and its academic operations, with some influence on the administration of the university’s assets. Professors were no longer appointed by the Senate, but by the Lesser Council based on the recommendation of the Education Council, that is to say, by political authorities.

Professors’ teaching obligations were increased, their leave reduced, and their salaries raised and uniformly regulated. However, the old academic structure of the university remained almost intact. The Senate, which included all regular, full professors, continued to exercise jurisdiction over the students, supervise subordinate institutions, manage university funds, and award scholarships. The faculties were partly modernized (the curriculum in the Faulty of Law, for instance, was expanded to include new subjects) and the Faculty of Philosophy was made equal to the other three. Eight professorships were also established in this faculty, some of them new, covering new languages (i.e., German and French literature), geography, physics and chemistry, and statistics – all in the hope that “with the successful progress of the institution, the diligent young student gifted with talents will be able to acquire all necessary knowledge here to earn a doctorate with honor and justice in theology, law, and philosophy, or at least, if he aspires to a very high degree of scientific education, and to be so prepared as to need only a short stay at a large university,” as one reads in the report of the University Commission.

Yet this at first remained nothing but an overly optimistic wish. Indeed, the Faculties of Theology, Philosophy, and the Medicine slowly began to recover and gain prestige, supported by political refugees from Germany, such as the classical philologist Franz D. Gerlach (1793–1876), the historian Friedrich Kortüm (1788–1858), and the theologian Wilhelm de Wette (1780–1849), who later also served as rector. With these figures, moreover, the neohumanist ideal of science arrived in Basel. The Faculty of Law, however, continued to struggle, as a broader influx of students failed to materialize. Nevertheless, in the 1820s, the university gained support among Basel’s citizens, not least through the popular public lectures that practically all university teachers began to offer, attracting in particular upper-class women from the city who attended as auditors.

And yet even while voices critical of the costly Basel miniuniversity hardly fell silent, the true challenge for university-city relations did not come until the cantonal separation of 1831–33. With a few exceptions (such as the “radical” democrats Troxler or Snell, who sided with the rural areas), the university, meaning the student body and professors, sided with the city of Basel and were even prepared to demonstrate this allegiance with armed support – probably also because they felt that the rural population was prejudiced against higher education and would oppose the university, i.e., advocate for it to be abolished.

During the eventual cantonal separation, the university’s assets were moreover included in the general division of assets, as decided by a narrow majority of the federal arbitration court, against the vote of the city and the Senate. Both the city and the university fought against this decision with all (legal) means at their disposal, though to little avail: the final judgment from 6 August 1834 stated that the university would not be divided in real terms, but that “the entire university property, with its benefits and burdens and under the obligation to maintain it faithfully for its intended purpose” would be “allocated solely and exclusively to the Canton of Basel-City.” The city, in turn, was compelled to compensate Basel-Countryside with the substantial sum of 331,451 Swiss francs.

This, alongside other burdens imposed on the city by the cantonal separation or accepted by it, represented a significant turning point. Was the university indeed worth being preserved under these circumstances? And how should it be financed in the future, when its preservation had already cost the city such substantial sums? Such questions were hotly debated within the city. In the meantime, the university as an institution had gained so much prestige that influential advocates spoke up for it, including councillors Andreas Heusler and Christoph Burckhardt-Hesse, pastor Johann Jakob Bischoff, and professors Peter Merian and Wilhelm de Wette, who came together as an Education Committee to develop a proposal for reform.

Their report was submitted to the Grand Council for debate on 2 March 1835 and adopted in early April. The proposal was to “streamline” the university by eliminating some professorships and increasingly covering the materials they would have been expected to teach through temporary positions and voluntary teachers from the city, while preserving the institution as a whole. This was to ensure a basic education for Basel’s students and young citizens’ sons, who would then further their education and obtain their degrees at universities abroad. Professor salaries were also to be kept low, though faculty members would be free to secure additional income through other activities.

With these suggestions, the committee hoped to achieve a savings of some 15 percent of existing costs, more or less meeting the demands of the financial situation at the time. The plan succeeded in securing broad approval in the City Council. With a law passed on 6 April 1836, the Corporation of University Citizens was granted the status of the sixteenth electoral guild of the city, with regulations consistent with those of the other guilds – and a regulation that maintained or reintroduced a remnant of corporate independence into the university’s constitution. This preserved and continued the University of Basel as an institution deeply conscious of its own traditions and insistent upon academic freedom, alongside its supporters, the citizens of Basel.