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History of the University of Vienna

Statue of Duke Rudolf IV (the "Founder"). Photo: University of Vienna

On 12 March 1365 Duke Rudolph IV  (the 'Founder') founded the University of Vienna, 'Alma Mater Rudolphina Vindobonensis' as it has been called by literary sources. The members of this 'universitas magistrorum et scholarium' (the community of teachers and learners) were exempt from taxes and military service, they had their own dress code and jurisdiction, the latter carried out by the Rector himself. 

Reformation – Stagnation and dominance of the Jesuits

In the course of the Reformation, starting in 1520, the University of Vienna, a 'papal institution', suffered a great loss of prestige. Due to the First Turkish Siege of Vienna in 1529, recurring epidemics, the city's economic decline, and the increasing competition between universities, the number of students sank, too.

Constellation, Andreas Cellarius (1661). Photo: University of Vienna

King Ferdinand I tried to counteract this development with new reforms and started to turn the University of Vienna into a Catholic stronghold. For this purpose he installed the Jesuits there in 1551, and gave them two theological chairs. Consequently, tensions and conflicts between the Jesuit school and the University itself arose, making Emperor Ferdinand II pass the 1623 'Sanctio Pragmatica'. Thus, the Jesuits became the teachers at the theological and philosophical faculties,  and the student numbers rallied. The Jesuit order was to keep its dominating position for the coming 150 years.

Enlightened Absolutism: the University as an educational establishment of the state

The General Hospital around 1784. Photo: University of Vienna, University Archives

In the middle of the 18th century, Empress Maria Theresa ensured that the Jesuits lost a great deal of their former influence on university life as they had greatly neglected the 'secular' faculties. As both the Church and the University's own administrative bodies were eliminated, the University became an educational establishment of the state, focusing on the education of civil servants and physicians, but not on the education of scholars.

The empress’s personal physician, Gérard van Swieten, was to implement the new reforms. Obviously, he focused on the medical and natural sciences. He was the one to transfer the education of the students of medicine to the patients’ bedside, and he also established two new Chairs – Chemistry and Botany. In 1754, the Botanical Garden of the University of Vienna (Rennweg) was opened to the public.

Joseph II continued with the reforms of Maria Theresa, abolishing both academic jurisdiction and official attire. His laws of tolerance enabled Protestants to enrol at the University for the first time in 1778, while in 1782 Jews were admitted to the studies of Medicine and Law. Joseph II was also the one to introduce German as the compulsory language of instruction in 1783.


1867: "Science and its teaching are free"

The year of the revolution 1848 also greatly influenced the University of Vienna. Students demanded the freedom of teaching and learning, and the end of any suppression of academic life. To this day, the most important success of their endeavours has been the – still valid – Article 17 of the Austrian Basic Law on the General Rights of Nationals: "Science and its teaching are free". Minister of Education Leo Graf Thun-Hohenstein reformed the system of tertiary education radically and invited a great number of professors to Vienna. 

The new Main Building on the Ring

Historical view of the Main Building. Photo: University of Vienna, University Archives

In 1884, Emperor Franz Joseph I inaugurated the new Main Building of the University of Vienna on Ringstrasse, which had been erected by Heinrich von Ferstel. This splendid historicist building was designed to resemble the renowned Italian Renaissance universities. However, it could never lay claim to be the central university building even in the early days, and there was never enough room for all departments. The up-and-coming Viennese Medical School required more space, and by 1915 numerous buildings had been erected in the vicinity of the Main Building to house the 'homeless' departments.

More Information: The Main Building - a Historic Centre

Women at the University of Vienna

It was 532 years after its foundation until the University of Vienna permitted female students to enter its hallowed halls as students in 1897, even if 'only' at the Faculty of Philosophy for a start. Elise Richter – she had enrolled in Romance Languages and Literature in 1897 – was the first woman to habilitate at the University of Vienna in 1907. 

The turmoil of war and the post-war era

Arcade Court, First World War. Photo: University of Vienna, University Archives

The boom of the University of Vienna nosedived during the First World War: the Main Building was now used as a military hospital, with the Große Festsaal (Main Ceremonial Chamber) functioning as a dining hall and lounge, and the Kleine Festsaal (Small Ceremonial Chamber) and numerous lecture rooms as operating theatres.

During the worldwide economic crisis of the 1920s, German nationalist tendencies also started to make themselves felt on academic soil, often growing into full-blown anti-Semitism. In 1938, after the Anschluss, Austria’s annexation to the German Reich, any dissenting voices are quickly silenced, the result being a kind of academic mass exodus: 45 % of all professors and senior lecturers were dismissed on political or 'racial' grounds.

By the end of the war, the Main Building had been hit by 26 bombs. The glass roof of the library's reading room was shattered. The Red Army took over the building, but on 16 April 1945 student Kurt Schubert (1923–2007, Professor Emeritus of Jewish Studies) succeeded in having the University cleared, and by the end of May 1945 the summer semester lectures had started again, despite reconstruction work. 


Education boom and expansion

Centre of lecture halls (Hörsaalzentrum) on Campus. Photo: University of Vienna

Free university admission in the 1970s triggered an educational boom and resulted in a vast expansion of the University of Vienna. Increasing numbers of students necessitated the construction of new buildings and the redevelopment of old ones: Neues Institutsgebäude (New Institute Building, NIG, 1962), University Sports Centre (Auf der Schmelz, 1973), Universitätszentrum (University Centre, UZA I, Althanstrasse, 1982)), Juridicum (Faculty of Law, 1982), Betriebswirtschaftszentrum (Business-Administration Centre[BH1] , Brünner Strasse, 1991), Vienna Biocenter (Dr.-Bohr-Gasse ,1992)), UZA II (Althanstrasse, 1995), University Campus on the premises of the former General Hospital (1998), and the Hörsaalzentrum (lecture halls’ centre) on Campus (2003), Währinger Strasse29 (2012), Oskar Morgenstern Platz (2013).

21st century: Re-organisation – Status quo

With the 2002 Universities Act, all Austrian universities became autonomous, and therefore more self-dependent and performance-orientated. For the University of Vienna, this meant total re-organisation: by 1 January 2004 the Medical Faculty became a separate university.  Currently, the University of Vienna comprises 15 faculties and four centres. 92,500 students can choose from more than 180 degree programmes, and 9,500 employees, 6,700 of which academic, work at more than 60 locations of the University of Vienna.

The University of Vienna celebrates its 650th Anniversary in 2015.

Further information on the history of the University of Vienna on the homepage of the University Archives.

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