12 May 2020 marks the 656th anniversary of the Jagiellonian University foundation by King Casimir the Great. Each year this date is celebrated as the Jagiellonian University Day by the students and staff of the oldest university in Poland, who express their happiness with and pride of the over 650-year-old history of their institution.
Unfortunately, this year’s celebrations were limited due to the risk related to the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus pandemic. Yet, the core element of the tradition was upheld – a small delegation of University authorities laid flowers at the graves of King Casimir the Great, Queen Jadwiga and King Vladislaus Jagiełło in the Wawel Cathedral, expressing their gratitude towards the University’s founders, whose vision and courage resulted in the creation of the oldest secular institution currently functioning in Poland. In 1364, King Casimir the Great wanted the University to become the “pearl of the inestimable sciences so that it may bring forth men outstanding for the maturity of their counsel, pre-eminent for their virtue, and well qualified in all the branches of knowledge.” From today’s perspective, it can clearly be seen that his dream has come true.
Throughout its history, the Jagiellonian University has been home to numerous eminent scholars, who lived up to the motto of the institution: “Plus ratio quam vis” (Latin: “let reason prevail over force”). The University is proud of its great alumni, including the astronomer Nicholaus Copernicus and Karol Wojtyła, who became Pope John Paul II.
The history of Polish academia formally began on 12 May 1364, when King Casimir the Great signed the foundation charter of the Studium Generale – as the University was then called. The newly established institution comprised three faculties: of Liberal Arts, Medicine, and Law. Only the former two were active during the founder’s life. After the King’s death, the University virtually ceased to exist.
Following the failed attempts to restore it in the 1390s, the University was re-founded by King Vladislaus Jagiełło on 26 July 1400. Queen Jadwiga, who died in 1399, contributed to the restoration by leaving a considerable portion of her private estate to the University in her last will. The University’s refoundation was marked by the establishment of the fourth faculty: of Theology.
During the 15th century, the University flourished and soon became one of the leading European academic institutions, especially known for its brilliant lawyers, mathematicians, astronomers and geographers. The world famous astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus enroled as a student in 1491.
The second half of the 16th century brought crisis. The Reformation and religious division of Europe combined with the creation of many new universities led to a decrease in the influx of foreign students. Admission to important offices in Poland was restricted to nobility without a higher education prerequisite, which made a large proportion of this social class lose interest in university studies. In spite of that, the University was the alma mater of many later Polish statesmen, bishops and writers, such as Mikołaj Rej, Jan Kochanowski, Andrzej Frycz Modrzewski, Stanislaus Hosius, and Marcin Kromer.
In the second half of the 18th century, the University underwent a thorough reform, executed by Hugo Kołłątaj, acting on behalf of the Commission for National Education. He replaced the four original faculties with two colleges: the Collegium Morale (Theology, Law and Literature) and the Collegium Physicum (Mathematics, Physics and Medicine), introduced lectures in Polish instead of Latin, furthered the development of natural and exact sciences, and initiated the construction of the astronomical observatory, the botanical garden and the university clinic.
In 1817, the University acquired its modern name: the Jagiellonian University (JU). During the period of the foreign rule after the partitions of Poland (1795-1918), when Kraków was incorporated into Austria, this was an act of resistance, due to the clear reference to the Jagiellonian dynasty, which ruled the Polish Kingdom in the times of its greatness.
The Second World War (1939-1945) was the most tragic period in the University’s history. In 1939, Nazi German authorities deceived the professors and other academics into gathering in Collegium Novum, then arrested and deported them to concentration camps. The University was closed down. As a result, clandestine education commenced in 1942 for approximately 800 students. One of them was Karol Wojtyła, who later became Pope John Paul II.
In 1945, over 5 thousand students enrolled to the re-opened University. Among them was Wisława Szymborska, the later poet and Nobel Laureate. In the new political reality of the People’s Republic of Poland, the University’s autonomy became limited, and theological, agricultural and medical faculties were removed.
After the change of the political system in 1989, the Jagiellonian University regained full academic freedom, which opened a new chapter in its history.
Today the University has 16 faculties, including three medical ones, which re-joined the JU in 1993, forming the Medical College. The University currently employs more than 3.8 thousand academic staff, including over 650 professors, while providing education to about 40 thousand students, including more than 4.5 thousand international students.
The Jagiellonian University is continuously improving its position in international rankings. It has recently advanced to the top 400 universities in the Academic Ranking of World Universities, outperforming other Polish institutions of higher education. It is also highly ranked in the QS World University Ranking and the Times Higher Education World University Ranking. According to the international databases Web of Science and Elsevier Scopus, JU researchers are the most prolific in Poland, publishing the highest number of academic papers. The extraordinary quality of research is reflected in the Jagiellonian University’s position as the only Polish and Eastern European higher education institution in Reuter’s Top 100: Europe’s Most Innovative Universities ranking.
The international position of the oldest Polish University is reflected in its membership in a number of prestigious academic networks, such as the Magna Charta Universitatum, AUCSO, Baltic Universities Programme, Coimbra Group, European University Association (EUA), EUNIS, EUROPAEUM, SAR, The Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities, UNA Europa, Unitown, Utrecht Network, and CELSA (Central Europe Leuven Strategic Alliance).
In 2019, the Jagiellonian University was granted the status of a research university by the Polish Ministry of Science and Higher Education as part of the programme “Excellence Initiative – Research University”.
JU researchers are very successful grant winners, whose projects receive funding from the National Science Centre, the National Centre for Research and Development, the Foundation for Polish Science as well as the European programme Horizon 2020. It is worth noting that three JU Researchers (Dr Michał Németh, Dr Tomasz Żuradzki and Dr Rafał Banka) have won grants from the European Research Council, which are considered the most prestigious in Europe.
The world-class research and education require well-developed infrastructure. The Jagiellonian University has recently completed the construction of the state-of-the art Campus of the 600th Anniversary of the Jagiellonian University Revival, whose modern facilities are fitted with cutting-edge research equipment. All faculties of exact and natural sciences are now located at the new campus, along with extra- and interfaculty research centres, such as the Jagiellonian Centre for Innovation (JCI), the Małopolska Centre of Biotechnology, the SOLARIS Synchrotron Radiation Centre, the Jagiellonian Centre for Experimental Therapeutics, and the National Sciences Education Centre. The JU also has the largest and most modern hospital in Poland, which is also one the most innovative medical centres in Europe. The University Hospital is not only a clinical unit, but also an educational centre, where students and physicians develop their knowledge and skills.
For 656 years of its existence, the Jagiellonian University has been pursuing the vision of King Casimir the Great to provide “a refreshing fount of learning, from whose plenitude all those wishing to imbibe the skills of scholarship may drink their fill”, acting in accordance with its motto “Plus ratio quam vis”.
The quotations from the University’s foundation charter come from the book Alma Mater Jagellonica by Stanisław Dziedzic (Kraków, 2005, English version), translated by Teresa Bałuk-Ulewiczowa.
Photos: Anna Wojnar (1-4), Filip Radwański (5,6), Adam Koprowski (7), University Hospital Archives (8)