The university and the citizens of Basel

Unlike other universities imposed by territorial rulers, the University of Basel can be said to owe its existence in a special way to the engagement of Basel’s citizens, just as the institution has always been closely connected with the city. And even if this may also be true for other universities – such as Cologne or Erfurt, or for most other universities in Switzerland – in Basel one can observe a process that is not uncommon, in which a positive characteristic is first perceived elsewhere and then recognized at home as an expression of local identity. Is it the citizens who owe an obligation to the university, or the university to the citizens? Who exercises agency, and who is subject to decisions made by others? Or do the university and the city’s citizens not both find themselves – ideally – in both positions?

The trope or myth of Basel’s “civic university” can be traced back to the special circumstances of the university’s founding. It emphasizes the initiative and willingness of Basel’s citizens to contribute the necessary resources for the university’s operation. Edgar Bonjour, author of a university history published in 1960, describes the city’s willingness in 1661 to purchase Amerbach’s cabinet – preventing it from being sold abroad and then entrusting it to the university – as a testament to the widely praised civic spirit of Basel: “This beautiful act of state patronage and cultural responsibility came about through a collaboration of scholars and magistrates that was unparalleled in all of Switzerland at the time.”

A century later, the situation had apparently completely reversed. Now, the university was no longer being referred to as the “jewel” of the city but appeared instead as superfluous and useless. Now, people spoke of the university’s distance from Basel’s residents, and of the city’s indifference to the university – of an “irreconcilable difference between parties” and an “incomprehensible discord between politicians and the university, which had fallen into a slumber.” Isaak Iselin, a philosopher and state secretary in Basel who saw the sciences as “the soul of civil society,” proposed – albeit unsuccessfully – the establishment of an academy offering lectures in German and in a generally understandable form on agriculture, forestry, and dyeing techniques, as well as morals and politics.

Whether and to what extent the city valued its university was only partly reflected in the aspiration of its citizens to assume university positions, or of the appointment of Basel’s sons to the university. Bonjour notes in his history of the university, albeit in the chapter devoted to its “decline” and “decay,” that the proportion of Basel professors was extremely high in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Just one example: the professorship of Hebrew was in the hands of the Buxtorf family without interruption from 1588 to 1732.

The high proportion of professors from Basel itself and the resulting narrowing of the institution’s perspective, criticized as early as the seventeenth century by Jakob Bernoulli, was perceived in the eighteenth century as a symptom of the decadence characteristic of the age. Yet the City Council had expressly urged the university even in the mid-sixteenth century to appoint Basel residents to its positions. At the celebrations of the university’s anniversary in 1760, self-praise was in no short supply: the institution’s academic “womb,” it was declared, was so fertile that not only was there no need for external appointments, but the institution was able to produce scholars who could be sent elsewhere. For a long time, the appointment of its own graduates to academic positions was not seen as a flaw; on the contrary, this practice was proudly taken as indication that the university had produced excellent successors.

This was not, however, the only point of view. While expressing respect for the institution, others also noted a dominance by the “spirit of commerce,” as one observer wrote in the late eighteenth century. The saying that the most talented son is kept to work in the family business, while the least intelligent one is made a professor at the university, is perhaps an apt bon mot for this chapter of history.

The theologian Eberhard Vischer, who was given the honor of delivering the anniversary address in the Basel Cathedral in 1910, made a point of praising the continued presence of “competent professors from local families” at the university, after acknowledging the contributions of German scholars who had come to Basel. Yet this, he added, was no sign of regression to older times but an indication of the bond that he hoped would “continue to mutually benefit both the citizenry and the university in the future.”

The concept of a strong bond between the city and its citizens only truly became a guiding principle over the course of the nineteenth century. It was felt especially by those who had moved to Basel from elsewhere, and articulations of this perception played no small part in the fact that celebrations of the virtue become a frequent refrain. In 1851, arguing against the proposed abolition of the university and its replacement with a trade school, the German Christian Friedrich Schönbein emphasized that the distinct character of Basel’s venerable institution, in contrast to the German universities, was that it was not isolated from the city’s residents but maintained close ties with the community through associations and societies.

Praise for this ideal of civic-mindedness meant, above all, a willingness to support the university with donations solicited in various campaigns, which manifested itself in the 1840s in the construction of the Great Museum and other buildings. To celebrate the university’s anniversary in 1860, a substantial sum was raised for the construction of an observatory. This project was the origin for the Bernoullianum established in 1874, intended to serve not only astronomy but also physics and chemistry. At the laying of the foundation stone, Councillor Prof. Wilhelm Vischer praised the fact “that in a truly republican manner, hundreds of citizens have voluntarily participated. The institution will stand as a creation of an active civic spirit and will therefore be used by all classes, serving the education and well-being of all.”

A few years later, the Voluntary Academic Society (Freiwillige Akademische Gesellschaft, or FAG) covered half of the construction costs for the Vesalianum, which opened in 1885. Wilhelm His, still responsible for both anatomy and physiology, rejoiced at the opening ceremony: “As a new addition, the Vesalianum joins the circle of those Basel institutions that owe their existence to the beautiful collaboration of state support and private sacrifice.” The building would be a “lasting sign,” he continued, “of the sensibility prevailing among Basel’s citizens for the common good and for scientific endeavors” and a “model of like-minded activity” for future generations. Around half of the construction costs of the library building, which opened in 1896, were also contributed by the FAG. At the time, the bond expressed by this gift was celebrated with a large parade, which crossed the city from the old university quarter on the Cathedral Hill to the new university quarter on St. Peter’s Hill.

The June 1939 celebrations at the dedication of the new college building in St. Peter’s Square provided yet another opportunity to laud the bond between the university and the city. The Friends of the University (graduates of the university and emeritus professors) presented the university with a golden rector’s chain, which they interpreted as expressing “the indissoluble bond” linking the citizens of the city and the university. The trope of a bond between the city and the university was also invoked in the great Cathedral celebration of 1939. But in praising the special affection held by the city’s residents for its university, Councillor Fritz Hauser – a social democrat – described this civic bond more in terms of a solidarity among the people rather than among citizens. Basel was proud, he declared, not because it possessed the oldest university in Switzerland, but “because the university is deeply connected with the consciousness of its people.” He added: “In fact, I know of no university – and I have known many – that is so rooted in the people as is ours in Basel. It has never been a foreign presence among us, and it has always known how to present its science to the public in a popular form, just as the institution of the Volkshochschule, in particular, has proven immensely beneficial.”

Former rector Frank Vischer, in an essay written in the 1980s about the social position of the university, continued this tradition in once again underscoring the theme of civic ties: “The idea of an open ‘citizens’ academy’ may have inevitably yielded priority to the growing demands placed on the university in research and education, but it never truly disappeared. It continues to live on in various institutions: in public lecture series; in the Seniors’ University; in the opportunity that every resident of the city enjoys to attend lectures; in the Volkshochschule that is so closely tied to the university; in the Dies academicus and the rector’s dinner; in ties between citizens and scholarly societies; in specialist committees; and so on. To this day, the University of Basel remains – to a much greater degree than other universities – an institution open to the citizens of the city. And conversely, Basel’s citizens treat the university with respect, even if not always enthusiastically so, just as this respect is reflected in the special social prestige that professors enjoy here.”

The close ties between the university and the city have been evoked at every anniversary celebration to date. The 550th anniversary, however, was more restrained in this regard – kindly inviting a general public to take an interest in the university as an institution that disseminates and produces knowledge. This restraint can also be explained by a well-considered awareness of the fact that the canton of Basel-City was no longer the sole supporter of the university, and that speaking of “citizens” – or “Bürger” in German, a term that hearkens back to the early modern burghers of the city, who once ruled the surrounding lands – could evoke Basel-Countryside’s earlier subjugation, 170 years after its self-emancipation, and thus be of little relevance for both Basels.