The university debacle of 1978
After a period of 15 years of planning for a university in central Switzerland, the Lucerne electorate rejected the proposed university in a referendum on 9th July 1978. The plan had envisaged five faculties: humanities; science and psychology; law; economics and political science; and theology.
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One of the sustaining foundations of every modern society is its education system. This statement was particularly true after 1950, during the Wirtschaftswunder, the postwar economic boom years. It was during this period, in the middle of the Cold War with its systemic competition between East and West, that the knowledge society emerged. Far more than all previous social arrangements, the knowledge society was based on academic education, research and advanced technology. Throughout Western Europe, the existing universities faced a mass influx of students. In Switzerland, too, higher education was bursting at the seams. Apart from Ticino, Central Switzerland was the only larger Swiss region that did not have its own university. These developments did not go unnoticed in Lucerne. At the end of January 1962, Grand Councillor Felix Willi from the town of Hitzkirch and six co-signatories proposed that a University of Lucerne be established as the ‘crowning glory of all the scholastic works of our canton’. A good year later, a clear majority on the Grand Council declared the Willi motion to be of significant importance.
This was the green light for an intensive planning phase. Over the next 15 years, government, parliament and experts drew up a solidly financed university proposal, tailored to the specific needs of Lucerne. The University of Lucerne in Central Switzerland was to become a joint venture of the cantons of Lucerne, Uri, Schwyz, Obwalden, Nidwalden and Zug. Five faculties were envisaged: theology, humanities, natural sciences, education and psychology, as well as law, economics and political science. The University was to accommodate a maximum of 3,000 students. On 7th March 1978, the Grand Council gave its clear approval for the new University Law, with 116 votes in favour, 38 against and 2 abstentions. The leading political party at the time was the CVP, the Christian Democratic People's Party of Switzerland. While this party amlost unanimously voted for the University bill, only a wafer-thin majority of Liberals and Social Democrats rallied behind it.
With its wide-ranging implications, the struggle for votes went from being a matter of content to one of the most intense battles in Lucerne's post-war history. After all, this fourth attempt to establish a university was the prestige project of the more forward-looking circles in Central Switzerland. As the then Director of Education, Walter Gut, repeatedly emphasized, the aim was to create a modern university, i.e. one that was politically and denominationally neutral. In an unusual effort, supporters tried to sensitize voters to the historical significance of this proposal. Following the motto ‘The university takes us all further forward’, they drew attention to this ‘opportunity of the century’ throughout the capital and the conurbation as well as in the rural towns and villages of the hinterland. Probably for the first time, in an issue of overriding importance, a unanimous recommendation to accept the proposal came from the canton, all three major parties, as well as the business associations and many prominent figures from society and culture. The impressive front of supporters and their well wrought arguments were not matched by those of their opponents. The ‘No’ campaign stirred up all kinds of dull fears, for example of a Catholic university, a tax increase or a ‘left-wing sociologists' hotbed’ that would only produce unemployed academics. They openly stirred up resentment against the ‘gentlemen doctors’ and against the ‘academic do-gooders’ who they claimed had no idea of anything at all.
Finally, the Lucerne electorate voted on the bill on 9th July 1978. It was a world premiere. Never before had ‘the people’ been asked to vote on the establishment of a university. The result was surprising, but resounding: Lucerne's electorate rejected the founding of a university with 57.2 percent – 61,312 votes against to 40,093 in favour. Of the 107 municipalities in the canton, only 9 said yes to a university. In all the larger municipalities and even in the city of Lucerne itself, the project was rejected. The result was a bitter disappointment for the advocates and their supporters throughout Central Switzerland. The government council in charge even spoke of a ‘historic mistake’. There is no doubt that the result was a real debacle for the future-oriented circles in the canton. It was a severe blow to the idea of a full university in Lucerne comprising five faculties. It was to take several years before the idea of a university was revived in a new form.