Universität Wien An Historical Tour of the University of Vienna

Archiv der Universität Wien 



A tour through the history of the Alma Mater Rudolphina Vindobonensis confronts us with familiar and, to a considerable extent, self-evident images and concepts that often suggest a continuity through the centuries. In reality there have been quite fundamental changes in most areas although we may also recognize a surprising constancy, indeed a stubborn traditionalism, in many of the university's forms and institutions over the course of its history.

The portrait is believed to be the oldest surviving individual royal portrait in Austrian art. It is by an unknown master from the Bohemian School of Artists in Vienna. Rudolf IV died only a few months after the foundation of the University of Vienna. (Original in the Cathedral and Diocesan Museum in Vienna)

In fact we are undertaking a journey into a distant and sometimes exotic past, a journey into worlds that are in some respects quite different from ours. It is not only the external and highly variable physical appearance, the organisational structures and the daily life of the university community that have undergone great changes or even breaches since the medieval foundation. The role, the purposes and goals of the university in the nation and in society have been fundamentally modified. For example, the highly privileged corporation of teachers and scholars - the universitas magistrorum et scholarium Vindobonensis - founded by the Austrian Prince with the rank and function of a studium generale, or official supra-regional Academy, also had (until 1783) its own academic jurisdiction. Moreover, it enjoyed far-reaching royal protection that was intended to guarantee its security and economic existence. As its prime task the conventional church authorities entrusted it with the propagation and preservation of the Christian faith and with the dissemination of the “permitted” branches of learning in the form of approved texts and doctrines. The foundation of the Corporation and of the General Study had been undertaken by the Habsburg prince, whereas the content of study and the authorization to teach were controlled by the Pope. The medieval University of Vienna, although very close to the church, was accordingly not an ecclesiastical foundation, but was equipped by the Austrian prince with comprehensive rights of autonomy and thereby set at some distance from both ecclesiastical and civic powers. It was a conglomerate of different corporate bodies (halls, societies, colleges, faculties, academic nations) whose members (or "subjects"), once entered in the Rector's register (matriculation book), belonged legally to the "Association" of the University and were bound to it by oath.

The period of Early Absolutism saw the university already being used quite markedly as a tool in the consolidation of territorial rule and denominational unity in Austria. The professors, originally able to teach freely, now became holders of "chairs" (Ordinarii), paid by the state, and responsible for the education of Catholic priests, doctors, civil servants and teachers. In the following era, dominated by the Jesuit order (1623-1773), the scholastic character of the university came to the fore. The academic Grammar School, founded by the Jesuits and closely linked to the university, together with the great Philosophical Faculty, served primarily to provide a foundation for a subsequent study of Theology. Jurisprudence and Medicine, on the other hand, were marginalised. Modern research and scholarship, and the progressive discoveries of natural sciences and technology, found almost no place in university teaching. Investigative teaching and learning were alien to the university for several centuries. On the other hand there was a flowering of baroque splendour, with distinguished new college buildings, impressive celebrations of doctoral promotion - even (from 1661 onwards) sponsored by the Emperor - and very popular performances in the Jesuit-controlled theatre in the Academic College, in which the actors were for the most part students or pupils of the academic Grammar School that belonged to the university.

Until the laws of religious tolerance of the Age of Enlightenment, access to the university was permitted only to Catholic students, and entry to the teaching body and academic functions was linked to the declaration of faith required after the Council of Trent. After 1778 Protestants could be admitted to the secular doctoral degrees. In 1782 Joseph II permitted the admission of Jews to doctoral degrees in Law and Medicine. Nevertheless the "Catholic character of the University of Vienna" was still being vigorously defended in the 19th Century, and for non-Catholics it was for many years still practically impossible to attain the various academic functions. The highly controversial acceptance of the Protestant Institute of Theology (founded 1821, Faculty from 1850) into the corporation of the University of Vienna was delayed until 1922.

The university reforms that took place under Maria Theresia and Joseph II were intended to eliminate the influence of the Church. The Jesuit order that had hitherto dominated the university was gradually suppressed up to the time of its final dissolution in 1773. In contrast the predominance of the state in university study reached its highest point in the history of the University of Vienna. Teaching had to focus strictly on approved books of readings. The whole conduct of teaching and examining was controlled by state-appointed directors of studies. In addition the corporate assets of the university were taken over by the state and consolidated into a 'study fund'. Complaints had long been made about the modest level of scholarship, particularly in the great Philosophical Faculty during the period of Enlightened Absolutism, and this was in no way improved. On the contrary, the distance from scholarship and research was increased when the training of "State Servants" - as opposed to scholars - was declared to be the principal aim of the university. Nevertheless the Faculty of Medicine, as a consequence of the reforms of Gerard van Swieten, the introduction of bedside teaching and the establishment of University Clinics after the opening of the General Hospital (1784), experienced the greatest upturn in its history, which culminated in the First Vienna Medical School. In the Faculty of Law, too, the foundations were laid during this period for many other disciplines, such as "Polizei- und Kameralwissenschaft" (Public Service), "State Accounting Studies" and Statistics.

The Vienna Revolution of 1848, in which students and graduates of the university played a leading role, brought a victory, after decades of suppression by the authorities, for academic freedom in teaching and learning. It provided the stimulus for the comprehensive educational reforms of the following year that are associated with the names of Count Leo Thun-Hohenstein and Professors Franz Exner and Hermann Bonitz. On the basis of a relationship between research and teaching the University of Vienna was reorganised in accordance with the Humboldtian model, and many new appointments from abroad were made. The academic level in all disciplines increased significantly, the Philosophical Faculty renounced its old role as a mere preparatory study for the "higher faculties" and was finally elevated to the rank of an institution for scholarly teaching and research. In the following decades up to the 1st World War the Alma Mater Rudolphina experienced the greatest single advance in its history. In many disciplines the "Vienna School" achieved a reputation throughout the world. This was particularly true of Medicine, but also of other subjects such as Economics, Physics, Psychology, Art History, Musicology and so on, whose representatives gained worldwide recognition.

From 1897 onwards, after fierce debate, women were finally allowed to study, and here the Faculties of Philosophy and Medicine took the lead. Although they formed a very small proportion of the student body in the first few decades, this increased after the 1st World War to some 20-30%. In the 1970s the 40% level was exceeded. Since the beginning of the 1980s more than 50% of all the students in the University of Vienna have been women.

The two World Wars had a disastrous effect on the University of Vienna. In the first place the end of the monarchy coincided with a considerable breach between Viennese scholarship and its international contacts, and many members of the university died in the Imperial Army. In the inter-war years the university became an arena for political agitation and serious acts of violence. On many occasions the university was temporarily closed down because of anti-semitic violence and riots. Long before the Anschluß a substantial proportion of students and professors in Vienna had sympathized with the National Socialist camp. With the annexation of Austria there broke a wave of expulsions and deportations. In the course of the racist and political persecutions almost half of all the teachers in the University of Vienna were removed from office and replaced with people loyal to the regime. The scientific exodus that had already begun in the years of the "Corporate State" (Ständestaat) and the subsequent expulsions by the National Socialists inflicted serious wounds on the University of Vienna and drastically reduced its international standing for a long period of time. Not even a third of those expelled returned to the university. To this we must add the human and material losses caused directly by the 2nd World War.

In 1945 many university buildings lay in ruins and it required enormous efforts from all democratically minded forces amongst the student and teaching bodies to push ahead with reconstruction. In an amazingly short time - by 1951 - this work was essentially complete.

In 1965 the Alma Mater Rudolphina was still able to celebrate her 600th jubilee peacefully and with large-scale international participation, whilst she was shaken three years later by the disturbances of the "1968" student unrest, which was felt in Vienna, however, as a "soft revolution". It focussed on the old university structures in which only the ordinarii (or full professors) had a voice. "Unter den Talaren - der Muff von tausend Jahren" (Beneath the gowns the stink of a thousand years) was the battle-cry.

The University Organisational Law of 1975 realised one of the main demands of this period - the democratisation of the university, and in addition to the professors the curiae of lecturers and readers, students and university administrative staff were involved in the decision-making process. There came about a radical change in the administrative structure of the entire university which admittedly entailed a considerable increase in bureaucracy. The multitude of meetings that were now required in the numerous consultative and executive committees still cause complaints today. At the same time in 1975 the existing five faculties were reorganised into eight. This was achieved by dividing the Faculty of Legal and Administrative Studies into the Faculty of Law and the Faculty of Social and Economic Studies, while the Philosophical Faculty was divided into the Faculties of "Foundation and Integrative Science" (Grund- und Integrativwissenschaften), Humanities, and Formal and Natural Sciences.

The rapid development of all branches of study led to an enormous growth in the number of disciplines and to the foundation of many new departments (there are at present around 190). Particularly since the early 1970s the explosive growth in the number of students - enrolments have doubled every ten years since that time - led to the problems of the "mass university", where individual supervision in many subjects is no longer possible. An additional problem is the chronic shortage of space and the dislocation that goes with it: despite continuous expansion these problems have still not been overcome. Among the major new buildings of the university are the Neue Institutsgebäude 9 (NIG, 1962), the university's Schmelz Sports Centre (1973), the Biology Centre (1982) the Juridicum (1984), the Vienna Biocenter (Biozentrum Dr. Bohrgasse, 1992). We should also include a number of older buildings that were acquired and adapted for university purposes, such as the building of the Catholic Theological Faculty (1973), the Archaeological Centre (1984), the Business Studies Centre (1991/94) and so on. Finally we should mention, as the greatest single increase in the number of buildings, the generous gift of the old General Hospital by the City of Vienna (1988). After an exemplary conversion this has become the Vienna University Campus and has been used since 1998 by the Faculty of Humanities.

In the current phase of organisational restructuring after the University Organisational Law of 1993 and the reshaping of the programme of studies, a backward glance into the history of the University of Vienna can do no harm. It may well be that many of the current problems can be seen more clearly against an historical background and long-term developments better appraised. This brief visit to some of the many points on the long road of the Alma Mater Rudolphina shows, with all the uniqueness of past events, that she is an "universitas semper reformanda".


Vienna, March 1999 HR Dr. Kurt Mühlberger