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Bern’s "palace of learning" celebrates centenary

The university's main building is a century old The university's main building is a century old

Bern University is this year celebrating the 100th anniversary of its imposing presence as "a palace of higher education" overlooking the city centre.

This content was published on July 2, 2003 - 16:12

Completed in June 1903, the main building is in the classic style of an era which produced other Bernese architectural gems such as the federal parliament.

The university's roots go back to 1528, as a seminary to educate Reformed Church clergy. The first building was an old monastery on the site of the present-day Casino - which despite its name is a restaurant and concert hall.

Faculties of law, medicine and philosophy were added to theology, but not until 1834 was the centre of learning officially known as Bern University. By then it had 187 students and 45 lecturers.

"By the 1860s bigger premises were needed," head of information Professor Annemarie Etter told swissinfo. "But it took over 30 years for the decision to go ahead and amazingly, building work took only three years.

"Its scale is also amazing when you consider the high construction costs during a period which was far from being affluent, and the comparatively small number of students at the time."

The university has a history to match the grandeur of its main building, and to mark the centenary it will later this year take the opportunity to look back on some of its many achievements.

No male preserve

For example it was one of Europe's first universities to admit female students. Rectors in the last decade of the 19th century included two Nobel prize-winners, and Albert Einstein became a lecturer there in 1908 after submitting his “Habilitation” thesis.

When a Russian emigrée, Katharina Goncharova, enrolled as a medical student in 1870 Europe’s universities were still very much a male preserve.

Interestingly, Etter points out that although by the turn of the century some 30 per cent of the students were women, only three per cent were Swiss.

“The prevailing mentality at that time discouraged Swiss females from taking up higher education,” she said.

“There was a high proportion of Russians because many were from well-to-do families who had been taught privately by French, German or Swiss governesses.

“They were therefore equipped with the language skills needed to study in Bern.”

Over half of the total number of students came from abroad in 1903 – a proportion much lower today.

“We would like more foreign students, but many can’t come here because the main language is German,” said Etter. “However it is possible to study for a doctorate in English.”

Progressive ideas

The university now has seven faculties and 140 institutes, and continues to enjoy a reputation as one of Europe's leading places of learning.

With a female student population of over 50 per cent, its tradition for sex equality also continues, and while women lecturers are still a minority, in 1990 it became the first Swiss university to establish a department supporting affirmative action for women.

Bern University's high status today owes a debt to the progressive ideas of such turn-of-the-century rectors as Theodore Kocher, Albert Gobat and the university directors which succeeded them.

Their legacy was a groundbreaking one, which in the run-up to the 100th anniversary of the sandstone "palace" had a certain irony. During renovation work five years ago, it was noticed that the building was not earthquake-proof.

Bern may not be in an earthquake risk zone, but the precautions taken to ensure safety in the event of one took longer than expected. An exhibition to mark the centenary has had to be postponed until October 31.

swissinfo, Richard Dawson

Key facts

Bern University was originally a monastery dating back to 1528.
The present university was founded in 1834 with 187 students.
In 1870 it became Europe’s first university to admit female students.
Its main building was completed in 1903.
The university now has seven faculties, 140 institutes and continues to have a reputation as one of Europe’s leading places of learning.
With a female student population of over 50 per cent its tradition for sex equality continues, although women lecturers are still a minority.

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