The Ancient Universities

Via Appia #12

Last week, I shared a few examples of governmental (San Marino city-state), commercial (Japanese companies), and religious institutions (the Catholic Church) that had outlasted their peers. These had lasted ~420 years, ~1440 years and ~2000 years, respectively. Among all three examples, a very clear set of values - and methods of continuously adhering to and communicating those values - seemed core to their longevity.

I’d like to continue exploring this theme. What causes certain organizations and ideas to last longer than others? Education and research is another intriguing category of institutions to investigate. The two oldest continuously operating universities are the University of Oxford (~920 years old) and University of Bologna (~930 years old). 

Each university has a unique founding history that embodies a set of implicit core values. Both share a few critical characteristics which have been vital to their longevity and success as hubs of research and pedagogy: decentralized and student-driven ways of organizing themselves, along with political leverage to secure special privileges from local governments.


Autonomous Self-Organization 

In the case of the University of Oxford, no exact date of origin is known. The earliest known organized teaching activities occurred in 1096. From its beginning, the university took the form of self-organized associations of students. These student associations gradually evolved into autonomous colleges that are fully self-governing corporations - often managing their own teaching, residential, library and research activities.

Initially, students grouped themselves together based on whether they were from the North (north of the River Trent and Scots) or the South (south of the River Trent, Irish and Welsh). Eventually, the community attracted other forms of diversity as well, including members of religious orders such as Dominicans, Franciscans, Carmelites and Augustinians, who adopted roles as administrators of student houses and halls. 

A similar mixture of self-organization and diversity was also present in the origins of the University of Bologna. Groups of foreign students were attracted to the city by its already varied array of scholarly communities and scholae on topics including law, theology and liberal arts.

These foreign students formed mutual aid societies to support each other financially and legally while pooling resources to hire scholars to teach them various topics. These student societies and their systems of hiring scholars gradually evolved into an umbrella institution - the Studium - which eventually became the modern Bolognese university. Professors and curricula were governed by and followed a set of rules selected by student representatives of all the various nations that the Studium included.


Political Leverage

One of the landmark moments in the history of the University of Oxford was when it and its sister university, Cambridge, secured the rights to a duopoly on higher education within England. Universities were multiplying in Europe (to the extent that there were more than 100 founded across the continent by 1500), but between the 1300s and 1820s, no new universities were established within England.

This happened because Oxford and Cambridge used their initial early success and influence as the earliest universities in the country to petition King Edward III in the 1320s to block the formation of new universities within England. They also encouraged their alumni not to give lectures at any sites outside of the two campuses. This cemented the position of both universities and ensured they had a 500 year head-start on their eventual peers in building reputations, networks and influence within the country.

The dominance of the University of Bologna was also strengthened through political means, although less coercive. As the Studium grew in size, the student association was able to leverage the city’s dependence on economic value derived from its student population to exact unique privileges and recognition. The Studium used this power to bargain for unique advantages in how it paid for faculty and how it structured legally recognized courses and degrees.

Over centuries, the student association gave way to the city government as the University of Bologna became a tax-funded public institution. But the unique freedoms and privileges that were secured by Studium set the University on a trajectory ahead of its peers, in areas including the breadth and expertise of subject matter available to students. It created a model that was explicitly used to establish future leading higher-education institutions including the University of Uppsala in Sweden.


In the cases of Oxford and Bologna, the final and perhaps most vital asset in their longevity are their networks of students and alumni continuously compounding in influence and value. Time and first-mover advantages are crucial to building networks that increase in power at a greater rate than those of competing institutions. 

For Oxford, using its position in England as the country’s first major university and the influence of its alumni to secure duopoly rights over higher education for 500 years ensured that its pace of building a network of patrons and donors would far outpace other universities.

For Bologna, the university’s initial governance took place through a network of student guilds; its evolution over time was largely a result of the special privileges and structure that the student network ensured for itself during its formation.

Both universities differ from the religions, businesses and governments I looked at previously in one crucial way. Their guiding values are implicit rather than explicit. Although they were each influenced by state and religion in different ways throughout their histories, the self-organizing nature of the two oldest universities in the world is perhaps the strongest evidence of their maintained purpose to serve as hubs of education and research.


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