The Ghent University Turns 200 Years

A century ago, in 1917, this golden trowel was used to lay the corner stone of the Ghent University, UGent. It became the alma mater of brilliant professionals such as the inventor of the World Wide Web Robert Cayo, the founder of Drupal Dries Buytaert, the first Belgian astronaut Dirk Frimout, the genial conductor Philippe Herreweghe, the equally genial opera director Gerard Mortier, two Belgian Prime Ministers Yves Leterme and Guy Verhofstadt, the Chairman of the International Olympic Committee Jacques Rogge, and many others who have become excellent experts in their field or simply educated people who make our civilization a civilization.

The list of famous scientists who worked at the Ghent University is no less impressive. Among them the inventor of Bakelite Leo Bakeland, Nobel Prize winner Corneille Heimans, a renowned medievalist Henri Pirenn, one of the founders of Art Nouveau architect Henri Van de Velde, the inventor of the stroboscope Joseph Plateau, a pioneer of scientific statistics Adolf Ketle, a great chemist August Kekulé, and even the first president of Israel, Haim Weizmann, who in 1901 taught biochemistry to students of the Ghent University!

Two hundred years ago the establishment of a new university couldn’t be overrated because the population of what now is Belgium was strikingly illiterate. I write ‘in what now is Belgium’ because at the time Belgium didn’t yet exist: it was part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands called the Southern Netherlands. In 1815, only half of the men in the Southern Netherlands knew the difference between letters and numbers (let stand could compose words with those letters!), and women were in an even worse situation. The only university in the South Netherlands, the Catholic University of Leuven, was closed down in 1797 during the French occupation, but even before the closure, the quality of education there left much to be desired.

It was in these circumstances that the king of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands William I decided that the Southern Netherlands needed a university. A powerful lobby immediately started pushing to get not one, but three universities (‘Give them a finger and they’ll take an arm’, the king must have thought). As the lobbyists achieved their goal: Leuven, Liege, and Gent received a university each.

In 1817 the first 190 students enrolled in the first year at the four faculties of the Ghent University (the Faculty of Philology, the Faculty of Law, the Faculty of Medicine and the Faculty of Exact and Natural Sciences). All these students were male: the first female student was allowed to enroll at the University of Ghent only 65 years later!

This brave young lady was a grocer’s daughter called Sidonie Verheelst. Before she enrolled in the Faculty of Precise and Natural Sciences, she already had worked as a teacher. Her appearance had a dramatic effect on the academic process: although Sidonie was assigned a whole free raw to herself, her male co-students didn’t leave her with rest. Her fellow students were constantly throwing tiny notes at her, and even beat a Roman fellow male student only because he dared to take a seat next to Sidonie! Surprisingly, the brave young lady still managed to accomplish two university years with honors … only to get married and drop out of the university. Girls will be girls…

A lot has changed since then: more than 40 thousand students study at the 11 faculties of UGent, and more than half of them are female. And they get top quality education: in 2017, UGent was the 69th in the Academic Ranking of World Universities ranking (the so-called Shanghai ranking). A city of huge textile factories, Ghent has become a city of an impressive talent factory – its UGent!