The sensational success of 21st May 2000
The Lucerne cantonal department of education and Hochschule Luzern together developed a modest referendum proposal for a university, which also received the support of the cantonal government and parliament. The proposal envisaged a small university with three faculties: theology, humanities and law.
Dr Ulrich Fässler, the FDP politician and new cantonal director of education, then enthusiastically and persuasively promoted the university project to the people of Lucerne.
You can find out more about the sensational success of 21st May 2000 in the audio contribution or in the complete text "The sensational success of 21st May 2000".
The Government Council scheduled a referendum on the University Act for 21st May 2000. The aim of the law was to further develop the existing University College, into a university with three faculties by 2005. The Faculty of Theology was to remain undiminished, while the Faculty of Humanities was to gain a Department of Sociology, and a new Faculty of Law was to be added. In the run-up to the vote, the nervousness at the University College was palpable. If the electorate were to vote no, the existing faculties would be closed down and all staff would lose their jobs. The joy and relief was therefore all the greater, when, on this wonderful day in May, the voters approved the University Bill with over 72 percent. All five local offices and 106 of the 107 municipalities said yes, the cities and larger towns as well as the villages in the countryside were all aboard. The turnout for the vote was an above-average 53 percent. Such a clear result had not been expected, and thus this was a sensational success and a historic breakthrough at the same time.
After 400 years of higher education and four failed attempts, Lucerne finally had its own university [StM1] – and it did so by means of a world premiere. Like no other university, it came into being through a democratic referendum. This success was down to many people. The decisive factor was certainly that all the major parties and forces in the canton were pulling in the same direction. That the politicians and university representatives submitted a more moderate proposal, using all the rules of the game, also helped. It was fortunate that with Dr Ulrich Fässler, a liberal-minded person was at the helm of the Department of Education, and this for the first time since 1871. In the Canton of Lucerne, the 19th century conflict of ideologies between the Catholic-conservatives and the liberals had had a particularly lasting impact. But, in Fässler, Lucerne had an assertive Government Councillor who could bring on board the Christian Democrats, the historical opponents and former majority party. Moreover, Dr Fässler spoke a language that was understood in the countryside.
On 1st October 2000, the University of Lucerne finally opened its doors under the leadership of the founding Rector, Walter Kirchschläger. The three faculties now had to be made to fly and the trust granted by the public had to be justified. This was achieved within a very short time. The new Faculty of Law had a sensational start. It was launched under the leadership of founding Dean Paul Richli, who had served as Vice Rector of the University of Basel before moving to Lucerne. The new faculty began its work on 1st October 2001. From the very beginning, it has been widely acclaimed among students. The two existing faculties also developed further in an impressive manner. At the research-strong Faculty of Humanities, the range of subjects was expanded. Here, the integrated study programme in Social and Communication Sciences and Cultural Studies, which was made possible by the Bologna reform, proved to be popular. And the Faculty of Theology also attracted more attention than before with its open orientation and attractive courses. After only a few years, the number of students at the Alma Mater Lucernensis clearly exceeded the targets, so that more and more teaching locations in the city had to be rented. This was the best proof that the new institution met a social need. In short, it can be said that an attractive educational institution was created that has been exercising a lasting positive impact on the society, culture and economy of this Central Swiss region.
From an academic perspective, it was far more crucial that the university quickly establish itself as an independent player in the university landscape of the German-speaking world. This was done through impressive appointments and innovative research projects. The University already achieved a coup in the winter semester of 2000/01 when it engaged the world-famous philosopher Jürgen Habermas for a three-week guest professorship. The star of German philosophy knew how to inspire his audience, an audience which also came from other regions of Switzerland. In 2002, Habermas returned to the small, but fine, university as a speaker and discussant in an international conference on ‘Intoleranz im Zeitalter der Revolutionen’ (Intolerance in the Age of Revolutions 1770-1848). Habermas gave the young university important interdisciplinary impulses. But this was only the beginning. Several other academic highlights were to come in the following years.