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International Conference

Visions of Society:
New Universities and the Twentieth Century

International Conference, University of Cologne, Germany, 28/3/2019 – 30/3/2019

On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of its re-foundation in 1919, the University of Cologne will offer an opportunity to reflect on the politics, relevance and impacts of the establishment of new universities in Europe during the 20th and early 21st centuries. The international conference "Visions of Society: New Universities and the Twentieth Century" will compare conditions and aims, forms and effects of new universities within changing political environments. While the historical European university model relies heavily on a tradition dating back to its medieval origins, it also proved to be flexible, innovative and open to the future.

Establishing a new university is a key historical event from several perspectives: New universities create research resources and academic positions, they establish new disciplines and study programmes, they stimulate the development of a city or region, they can be an instrument of state dominance and ideological control with respect to science and higher education, but they also can provide new scope for innovation, organizational experiments, civic engagement, and pressure group politics.

Usually based on well-established models, by founding a university alternative structures could be tested and new goals pursued. This is especially true in times of political upheaval or accelerated social change: in the years of crisis and state building in Central and Eastern Europe after 1918, during the decades of the European post-war boom after WWII, in the turmoil of “68”, after the collapse of communism in Europe, and under the impact of the reorganization of education and science based on market principles at the end of the 20th century.

Several aspects offer promising perspectives for an in-depth analysis of relevant examples:

1. Actors and interests. New universities often emerged during periods of rapid change. This placed political actors in city and state in the foreground, perhaps forces from civil society and private business as well. In addition, "academic entrepreneurs" – one may think of Helmut Schelsky or Ralf Dahrendorf in Germany – had their chance in turbulent times.

2. Models and competition. Sometimes new universities were built on an established model, but in other cases they claimed far reaching reform ambitions. Which models and concepts inspired the foundation? To what degree did it follow particular paths of national tradition? How much did it deviate from this path or to what degree did it borrow from models of other countries?

3. Disciplines and faculties. In many cases new universities emerged from previous institutions, for instance highly specialized schools of higher education or "applied science" (technical colleges). This shaped the future university’s profile and limited its potential for change. On the other hand, a start-up situation provided a good opportunity to establish new subjects and a profile different from existing subjects or even to promote new, inter- or transdisciplinary units of research and teaching.

4. Career and prestige. The foundation of new universities had an impact on academic careers. This applies to established academics, who became active as founding rectors or occupied new chairs and institutes. This also applies to the junior staff, who could benefit from emerging career opportunities. At the same time, however, new foundations often suffered from the dominance of the established universities and had to struggle for recognition.

5. Tradition and innovation. Tensions between tradition and innovation were often inscribed into the guiding principles and narratives of the founding process. But even after the new institution took hold, these tensions remained relevant. How successful was the impetus for change, how strong was the path dependency of the university system in general, and when did the pressure towards conformity of the old universities undercut innovative ambitions?

Contributions might focus on case studies or develop broader perspectives. In particular, periods of expansion, post-war developments, the reform era of the 1960s and 1970s, the period of transition after the end of communism in Europe, and the most recent tendencies towards private universities are of interest.

The conference – which is funded by the University of Cologne – shall offer an opportunity for thorough discussion in a workshop-style atmosphere. Presentations are to be given in English; the discussion will be in English or German.

Organizers: Prof. Dr. Ralph Jessen, Prof. Dr. Habbo Knoch, Prof. Dr. Hans-Peter Ullmann (Department of History, University of Cologne).