The Vrije Universiteit Brussel is the offshoot of the French-speaking Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB) that was founded in 1834 by a Brussels lawyer with Flemish origins, Pierre-Théodore Verhaegen. He wanted to establish a university that would be independent from the state and the church and where academic freedom would reign.
Although some courses at the ULB's Faculty of Law were already being taught in Dutch in 1935, it was not until 1963 that almost all the faculties offered courses in Dutch. The Dutch-speaking university was finally split off from its French-speaking counterpart on 1 October 1969.
With the act of 28 May 1970, the Vrije Universiteit Brussel and the Université Libre de Bruxelles officially became two separate legal, administrative and scientific entities.
The Vrije Universiteit Brussel is the only Flemish university that has incorporated the principle of 'free inquiry' in its statutes. This principle is based on a text by the French mathematician and natural philosopher Henri Poincaré (1854-1912), in which he says that:
Thinking must never submit itself,
neither to a dogma,
nor to a party,
nor to a passion,
nor to an interest,
nor to a preconceived idea,
nor to anything whatsoever,
except to the facts themselves,
because for it to submit to anything else would be the end of its existence.
It is no surprise that the seal of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel bears the legend 'scientia vincere tenebras' (science will triumph over darkness). The beggar's wallet and the joined hands on the orange-white-blue escutcheon in the emblem (the colours of the Prince of Orange) refer to the struggle of the Protestant Gueux and the Prince of Orange against the Spanish rule and the Inquisition in the 16th Century. The combination of the legend, wallet and joined hands symbolises the free and unfettered spirit of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel.
Another basic principle, also incorporated in the university statutes of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, is that the institution must be managed according to the model of democracy. In concrete terms, this means that all echelons, from professors and assistants over researchers, students, administrative staff and technical personnel, are represented on all its governing bodies.
Thus the university guarantees that every echelon has a voice in its decision-making processes and participates in its management.
Pierre-Théodore Verhaegen was born in Brussels on 5 September 1796. In many respects, his life was typical for the lifestyle of the high bourgeoisie and aristocracy in the first half of the 19th century. Verhaegen worked as a lawyer in Brussels, but he was also an active member of thefreemasons, the liberal party, and the Belgian parliament.
Although Verhaegen was a strong supporter of the anticlerical movement, he came from a very traditional Catholic family. Quite a few of his ancestors had been men of the cloth, and he was raised in the faith by devout parents. However, Verhaegen was highly representative for the liberals of his age as regards the ideology behind his anticlerical thinking. The first and foremost concern of these liberals was freedom of thought and action, without any interference from the ecclesiastical authorities.
Verhaegen conceived the idea of a university that would be completely independent from the church and the state and that would be devoted to the principle of free inquiry. It was a dream that came true with the establishment of the ULB in 1834. In contrast to many other prominent liberals, Verhaegen never succeeded in founding a liberal tradition in his own family. His civil funeral ceremony in 1862 was a great liberal and Masonic event, perceived by the Catholics as a scandal, but very important for the introduction and spread of secular rites and rules of social behaviour.
Every year on 20 November, the students and the academic authorities commemorate the founder of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel and the ULB, Pierre-Théodore Verhaegen. The event is marked by a carnivalesque parade through the streets of Brussels, accompanied by typical student antics. In popular parlance, the day is better known as 'St-Vé'. Traditionally, the academic authorities of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel and the ULB lay a wreath at the memorial tomb of Pierre-Théodore Verhaegen at the Brussels cemetery in Evere. In addition, the festive commemoration of Verhaegen is an excellent opportunity to strengthen the close ties of friendship between the ULB and the Vrije Universiteit Brussel.