Interlude: Relationship Crisis

City and University grow apart



At this moment in history, we should include a short interlude on the crisis in the marriage between city and university. We can be honest about this: 100 years after the warm inclusion of the university into the city of Ghent, considerable friction arose. It all revolved around money and language.


About the money issue. When the state university is installed in 1817, it is agreed that the city pays for university buildings and infrastructure. Initially, this is easy: in addition to the Aula, a few more classrooms are allocated. The city also readily shares the library, the botanical garden and the Bijloke patients with the university. But gradually, classrooms close to the Aula become too small, the Baudeloo Library too damp and the botanical garden, polluted. The situation at the Bijloke, where strong arguments over tools and patients take place, adds to the friction. Complaints and petitions swamp the City Council. The city wants to show full support for its university, but equally feels that the university has to show some understanding and patience concerning the constraints of the city finances.

The core of the problem is that, by the end of the 19th century, the university has developed into a scientific institution. Research and practical training are required by law, but building laboratories and libraries and equipping them for practical seminars is easier said than done. The city is spending vast amounts of money! The Federal Government helps support the construction of the Plateau building, but university and sciences are ever expanding. Ghent is no longer convinced that it should pay for the costs of a state university. The scale and importance of University of Ghent are no longer comparable with those of the institution it was back in 1817. Relationships sour.

To the relief of both parties, the untenable situation is ended in 1928, when the state finally acknowledges its responsibility for the university buildings. Several construction projects that had been on hold for years, are now revived. The Book Tower, the Technicum, the University Hospital, the Veterinary College and the National Agricultural College take shape in the 1930s.


The second issue, that of language, causes much more aggravation. In the 19th and early 20th-century the liberal, French-speaking bourgeoisie rules over Ghent. The Flemish Movement strives to have the French-speaking university become Dutch-speaking, an approach the Ghent elite considers to be absolutely ridiculous: a language such as Dutch simply cannot stand up against the great French language and culture, and surely the university does not want to lose its large group of foreign students?

The French-speaking elite of Ghent are not the only ones to hold this opinion. Most professors are adamantly against the idea, let alone its execution. Not surprising really: the professors are part of the Ghent elite. The battle for 'Dutchification' intensifies, not only in the printed press and in Parliament, but also on the streets of Ghent. One demonstration follows after another. The event of 19 November 1922 is legendary. With a lot of flags and noise, 20,000 supporters of the French-speaking university demonstrate in the city centre. But the Flemish counter-demonstrators are also present. They bombard the distinguished ladies and gentlemen of the French-speaking elite with the faeces of the police horses. The event goes down in history as 'the horse dung procession'.

Dutchification of Ghent University

Eventually, in 1930, the Flemish Movement brings the Dutch language home. After a long fight, Parliament adopts the ‘Dutchification’ of Ghent. The French-speaking Ghent elite has no other choice as to give in. For them, the UGent becomes a nondescript and estranged part of the inner city. In protest, the Ghent bourgeoisie now sends its children to the universities of Brussels and Liège. But not to Leuven since that - after all - is a Catholic university!

The Dutch-speaking university is rejuvenated by a new generation of Flemish professors. Headed by the socialist rector August Vermeylen, they are determined to make the 'new' university a success. And it works: the collection of buildings expands and the number of students increases. The icing on the cake is the Nobel Prize in Medicine for the Dutch-speaking professor Corneel Heymans in 1938. Even though the relationship between city and university has cooled off for a while, the two will eventually converge again.

Luckily, time heals all wounds. And the foreign students? By coincidence, the ‘Dutchification’ of the university in 1930 coincides with a global economic crisis. Not only does the University of Ghent lose its foreign students, but so do the other Belgian universities.

Next stop: Blandijn

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