Endless discussions about reform: the eighteenth century

As at most universities, the eighteenth century, and especially its second half, was a time of crisis for Basel. Accordingly, discussions about reforms were held throughout the century, though it was not until 1818 that they culminated in a fundamental reorganization.

Over the course of the eighteenth century, the university lost the significance it had unquestionably held at the end of the sixteenth century, especially in the fields of medicine and jurisprudence. At the same time, advanced schools developed in Zurich, Lausanne, Bern, and Geneva – with the latter particularly popular among the German nobility. In Zurich and Geneva, a distinct scholarly culture emerged, meaning that Basel and its university were by no means the only intellectual centers in Switzerland.

“What is the cause of such decline ...?”
Discussions on how to reform the University of Basel unfolded throughout the entire eighteenth century. In 1724, the Grand Council asked the university Senate: “What is the cause of such decline, and how might it best be remedied?” The reply, stretching over seventeen folios, initially noted that Basel was indeed competitive, or as contemporaries noted: “that ... our university has no reason to concede anything to those in Germany, and indeed in many respects surpasses not a few.” A key reason for the difficult circumstances, in the Senate’s view, was the lack of high regard and support from the Basel authorities and the city’s elite in general. Offering higher salaries to professors and increasing the university’s prestige, it argued, would encourage foreigners to study in Basel. And this could be expected to enhance the reputation of the university – and of the city. One important element to attract these foreign students identified by the Senate was the establishment of a riding school; the report indicated no interest, by contrast, in reforms concerning the organization of teaching, the curriculum, or the obligations of the professors. In 1724, however, as in all subsequent discussions of reform, the outcome of this demand by the Senate for better financial support was for the Basel City Council to immediately shelve the proposals.

“how to better support the local university ...”
Half a generation later, in 1738, the City Council once again urged the Senate to develop reform proposals on “how to better support the local university, restore the old order, and promote the benefit of the students.” The individual faculties responded to more specific inquiries with evasive replies. The Senate in particular denied the accusation that the lack of commitment from the teaching faculty was the reason for the significant decrease in foreign students, declaring instead: “indeed, it remains an open question whether it would be good for our university to have too many foreigners, and whether this might not lead to all sorts of disorder and chaos?” These discussions, too, ultimately ended without any tangible results, and the relationship between the university and the council remained tense.

The Platonic University, or: Unbiased Thoughts
Twenty years later, in the lead-up to the three hundredth anniversary of the university’s founding, an anonymous report was published entitled Platonische Universitaet oder Unpartheiische Gedanken wie Unsere Universitaet und wieweit dieselbe könnte wieder in Auffnahm gebracht werden (The platonic university, or: unbiased thoughts on how and to what extent our university might be revitalized). Fundamentally grappling with the nature and purpose of the university, the text primarily criticized the conditions for students in Basel (difficulties finding housing, the cost of living, necessary expenses for private lessons, and their limited availability) while also attempting to counter the stereotype of the “lazy professor.” And as with the earlier report, this text raised the issue of establishing a riding school. This was a question of particular importance in the eighteenth century, as it was paramount to attract noble students who from the second half of the seventeenth century customarily followed up their education from tutors at home by attending knight academies to acquire skills in French, as well as instruction in geography, statistics, and political sciences in order to become a courtier – a so-called cavalier or “honnête homme.” And it was precisely these students that Basel had increasingly failed to attract.

Unprejudiced Thoughts on the Improvement
In the same year, Isaak Iselin, the city scribe and an Enlightenment philosopher, published a reform pamphlet entitled Unvorgreifliche Gedanken über die Verbesserung der B...schen hohen Schule (Unprejudiced thoughts on the improvement of the B... institution of higher learning). As the “soul of civil society,” the sciences and the arts were to serve to “glorify the name of God” and to promote the “moral and physical happiness of human society.” Iselin emphasized the university’s utility for state affairs and society, advocating a practical organization of its eighteen professorships to promote practical, ethical, and national education across all disciplines. He also championed the principle of free and independent research, a concept he encountered at the University of Göttingen. But once again, this reform project came to nothing. During the 1760 anniversary celebrations, the Senate made great efforts to showcase the university’s “splendor” and “fama,” both within the city and beyond. Despite the grandeur of the festivities, the harmonious outward picture couldn’t fully mask the tension between the university and authorities; Mayor Samuel Merian and member of the committee of thirteen Balthasar Burckhardt refrained from attending the event to avoid having to yielding precedence to the rector in the procession.

The issue of reform was revisited in the Grand Council in 1764. Familiar arguments were rehashed, including complaints about professors’ low salaries and discussions about the university’s value to the state, backed by historical context. The Senate again demanded higher salaries and political equality for professors. Yet, this time too, fundamental reform failed to follow.

Individual innovations
Nevertheless, the eighteenth century did see some improvements. In 1727, upon the initiative of the City Council and coinciding with Benedict Staehelin’s appointment as a professor of physics, a physical cabinet was established as an annex to the Stachelschützenhaus and equipped with instruments from London, providing a space for Daniel Bernoulli to teach after 1747. From the mid-eighteenth century, again at the council’s instigation, Johann Jacob Spreng held lectures on Swiss history in German, and from 1753, the famous geographer and expert in the field of mechanics Isaak Bruckner also gave lectures in German on geography, mechanics, and geometry for any youths who were eager to learn. In the second half of the eighteenth century, various scientific societies were founded, among them a precursor to the later Swiss Society of Natural Sciences.

The existential crisis at the end of the century
After a century of repeatedly unproductive reform discussions and postponed efforts at reorganization, the university fell into a crisis during the Helvetic Republic that threatened its very existence. It was only after the university was completely reorganized and subordinated to the city as an institution of higher learning that this phase came to an end, laying the foundation for its modern form with its initially slow development.