University History

In 2014, the University of Groningen will be 400 years old. In the Netherlands, only the University of Leiden is older. Since 1614, the University of Groningen has been working on a rich academic tradition and has (had) many an extraordinary person in its community, like a Nobel prize winner, the first female student and the first female lecturer of The Netherlands, the first Dutch astronaut and the first president of the European Central Bank.

In 1614 the Staten van Stad en Ommelanden (States of City and Surrounding Lands) founded a university. The university set off with 6 professors for the faculties of theology, law, medicine and the liberal arts. Ubbo Emmius (1547-1626) was the first rector. The new “illustrious school” is housed in the vacant monastery buildings on the Broerstraat and is flourishing. The university is successful in drawing in famous scholars, which result in many foreign students coming to Groningen, mostly from the German border regions. Of the 12,000 students in the 17th and 18th century, a third is from abroad.

One of the famous scholars is Johann Bernoulli, who was professor of mathematics from 1695 until 1705, when he succeeded his older brother Jakob at the University of Basel. Johann is well-known for his contributions to differential- and integral calculus. In 1696 he published his famous brachistochrone problem, and presented his own solution in 1697. The brachistochrone problem and its solutions can be considered to be one of the starting points of the calculus of variations, and thereby also of optimal control theory. His son Daniel Bernoulli was born in Groningen in 1700 in a house close to the Academy building.

Wars and political disputes between city and surrounding lands caused the university to fall into decline at the end of the 17th century. In the second half of the 18th century, however, a period of recovery begins with student numbers increasing. During the French-Batavian period the university persists and can even call itself an “imperial” university for a while. In 1815 the university gained recognition as a national college of higher education, together with Leiden and Utrecht. This is not an extremely secure position though, as the government in The Hague is cutting budgets and discussing closure. The situation improves dramatically with the construction of a larger Academy Building on the Broerplein in 1850.

The Higher Education Act of 1876 had an enormous impact upon the development of the university. The State College was renamed a State University (Rijksuniversiteit) and Latin was replaced by Dutch as the official language. The university was to continue its educational activities but also take on research responsibilities. The number of academic fields is extended with modern languages, among others, and there are investments in faculties and the constructions of research laboratories. A fire that demolished the Academy Building in 1906 threw a spanner in the works of these developments, but this setback did not hold the university back for long, and in 1909 the new Academy Building is festively inaugurated. Five years later this building is at the centre of a grand celebration of the 300th anniversary of the university. Since then, the university has grown from just over 600 students in 1914 to over 28,000 students now (with the exception of the period leading up to and during WWII). And the end of this development is not yet in sight. On the day of the 400th anniversary, there will be an expected 30,000 students attending the university, of which 5,000 are from abroad.

Comments are closed.