UGent looks back and to the future as it celebrates 200 years


Ghent’s university has grown from modest roots to become a leading European institution, and it’s played an important role in the growth of the city. It’s marking its milestone with a series of events

A university for everyone

“The tender anarchist who speaks his mind without needing a mask.” That’s how Ghent folklorist Luc De Bruycker describes the typical inhabitant of his city.

As much as the city’s festivals and folklore are behind that, Ghent owes at least some of its free-thinking spirit to its university. To celebrate its bicentennial, Ghent University (UGent) is hosting a city-wide festival, while making clear what its future role will be.

The university is woven into the fabric of the city, with departments on almost every corner, thousands of its students zipping round the streets on bikes and its vibrant nightlife. But it could have all turned out very differently.

If it hadn’t been for King Willem I of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, who ignored committee reports arguing that a state university should be founded in the “more hospitable” (and more conservative) Bruges, Ghent would never have become one of Europe’s liveliest towns and intellectual hubs.

On 9 October 1817, Willem’s son, crown prince Willem, officially inaugurated the university in the Throne Chamber of Ghent’s city hall. With just 16 professors and 190 students in four faculties – law, sciences, medicine, and arts and philosophy – the lectures, all in Latin, started a month later.

Worldwide reputation

Who of all those present in the Throne Hall would have imagined that the number of students would rise to 41,000 and the personnel to 9,000, that the language would become Dutch and that the number of faculties would grow to 11, across 230 disciplines?

UGent now has a reputation around the world. Not only do Erasmus students bid to come and stay in “the Barcelona of the North” – a nod to Ghent’s party culture – professors and assistants also pride themselves on belonging to the only Belgian university to have entered the top 100 of the renowned Shanghai ranking in 2010 and held on to its position ever since.

Rankings don’t tell the whole story, of course. Based on data such as the number of Nobel prizes, international publications and citations by other academics, rankings don’t much take into account a university’s other responsibilities, such as offering qualitative education and making a contribution to society. 

Many universities are proud of their societal contribution, but in the case of Ghent there’s more to it

- Gita Deneckere

But UGent, it seems, successfully combines its high ranking with a more than satisfactory score on societal contribution. According to history professor Gita Deneckere, the university’s societal role and impact are nothing less than “the leading thread in Ghent University’s 200-year existence, linking its past and present to its future”.

For the bicentennial she wrote the book From the Ivory Tower: 200 Years of Ghent University, which focuses on the institution’s societal role through the ages. The presentation of her book at arts centre Vooruit kicks off the festivities on 8 October.

“Many universities are proud of their societal contribution, but in the case of Ghent there’s more to it,” she says, citing the struggle for emancipation from the church and the secularisation of Flanders. 

Social role

As far back as the 1850s, bishops were calling on the government to stop supporting the “godless” teaching of certain professors, which they considered unacceptable for a state university, she explains. These bishops instructed their pastors to tell their parishioners not to send their sons to Ghent but to Leuven’s Catholic university instead.

They succeeded in bringing the number of students down, particularly in the faculty of law. “A century later, we saw the same thing happening in the philosophy department,” she says. “Professors Leo Apostel, Jaap Kruithof and Etienne Vermeersch were notorious for their criticism of the power of the church in a nation as Catholic as Belgium. Students attending Kruithof’s classes attest that ‘their faith dried up like water in the sun’.”

UGent didn’t shun the thorny topic of language rights, either. When in 1930 it became the first university in the country to decide to teach in Dutch instead of French, it paved the way for the economic prosperity of Flanders in the second half of the 20th century. 

Flemish emancipation

The move initially led to a decrease of foreign students in internationally renowned disciplines such as engineering. But the university persevered, and the decision, aimed at opening up the institution to Dutch-speaking students, succeeded in its goal of Flemish emancipation.

“The democratic recognition of Dutch-speaking students went hand in hand with the spread of Dutch in government institutions, civil service and the private sector,” Deneckere says. “Along with the economic boom after the Second World War, we see the formation of the first fully Dutch-speaking management boards in industry.”

UGent never lost its fervour in defending controversial issues. Take sex reassignment surgery. “The concentration of knowledge and experts on gender operations at the university hospital is unparalleled in the rest of the world,” Deneckere says. “The hospital’s head of reproductive medicine, Petra De Sutter, who underwent sex reassignment surgery herself, is an icon of the transgender movement. Her very presence at the university and in the media makes the subject something we can talk about in society.”

The democratic recognition of Dutch-speaking students went hand in hand with the spread of Dutch in government institutions, civil service and the private sector

- Gita Deneckere

And when discussing contributions to the world, the names Marc van Montagu, Walter Fiers and Jeff Schell shouldn’t be overlooked. At Ghent’s laboratory of molecular biology, Fiers was the first person in the world to decipher the complete sequence of the genetic building blocks of a virus, laying the groundwork for cloning and the study of the human genome.

Van Montagu and Shell, meanwhile, developed the first methods for targeted genetic engineering in plants. Van Montagu’s development of transgenic crops resistant to pests and tolerant to new herbicides earned him eight honorary degrees and the World Food Prize.

Cure a teddy bear

After the book presentation and a live radio debate on 8 October, the festivities continue under the banner Iedereen UGent (Everyone UGent). There are 250 activities, from interactive science demonstrations and workshops for children to a book market and street theatre telling the story of the university’s many challenges and breakthroughs.

“It’s meant to be an experiential celebration,” says university spokesperson Isabel Paeme. “Everyone should be able to find something to suit them. Under the guidance of professors, children can make double helix DNA towers or ‘cure’ a teddy bear. Parents can enjoy short science talks on a variety of themes while alumni can relive their youth by attending a class led by one of their retired professors.”

The historical university buildings will open to visitors, and a team of Ghent’s most renowned doctors will debate the passion of work in Het Pand, the heart of the university. By 17.00, all performances, debates and lectures will be over, and the day winds down with a birthday concert by local artists with national and international fame, such as Jef Neve, Sioen, Lady Linn and Pascal Platel. 

And the future?

And the celebrations don’t end there. Until the end of the year, there will be lectures, events and symposia on a series of questions relating to the university. Of all those questions, the most interesting might well be: What about its future?

In line with its history, the university is keen to strengthen its societal role. To find out how best they could carry out that role, a team of psychologists spent several months travelling through the city’s streets in a caravan.

The “talking box” – as the researchers called it – stopped in at residential homes, hospitals, block parties, community events and fairs. Inside the box, participants were filmed while answering questions about what they expect from the university.

The classic model, which assumes that the research done at university can eventually be used by society, is hopelessly outdated

- Professor Ann Buysse

“The box was not a gimmick, it was a scientific device,” says Ann Buysse, professor at the department of experimental clinical and health psychology, who is leading the research. Four hundred people gave their opinions, and their contributions are now being analysed.

“The classic model, which assumes that the research done at university can eventually be used by society, is hopelessly outdated,” says Buysse. “The university cannot perform its function without being thoroughly fed by society.”

The results of the research will be presented at the University For You symposium on 21 December. 

Iedereen UGent, 8 October, across Ghent

Photo: UGent/Hilde Christiaens

Ghent University

Ghent University (UGent) is one of Flanders’ most pluralistic and liberal institutions of higher education, and its motto has long been “dare to think”. UGent is renowned for its research in bio and life sciences.
Latin - UGent was originally founded as a Latin-speaking state university by the Dutch king William I.
Nobel - Corneel Heymans, the only Fleming to have won a Nobel Prize, studied at the university.
Autonomy - UGent is the largest employer in East Flanders.

million euros in annual revenue

1 882

first female student admitted

1 930

Dutch becomes university’s official language