The founding of the University of Liège in 1817 on the initiative of King Wilhelm the First of the Netherlands was in fact the culmination of a long intellectual tradition going back to the origins of the Principality. From the XIth century on, the Schools of Liège, under the aegis of the prince-bishops, attracted students in pursuit of their first degrees as well as researchers anxious to immerse themselves, as Petrarch did, in the treasures of the libraries.
The reputation of the medieval schools was such that Liège became known as the "Athens of the North". It became even more renowned when the Collège opened in 1496 at the very site of the University's current main building at Place du 20-Août. The Brethern of the Common Life fostered a new type of education: the humanities.
At the end of the sixteenth century, the Jesuits succeeded the Brethern and became the new occupants. After the Society of Jesus was suppressed, the building sheltered the Grand Collège en Ile, entrusted to the secular clergy by Prince-Bishop Velbruck. Velbruck was an enlightened prelate who transformed the College of English Jesuits, established in Liège in 1614, into the English Academy and promoted high quality technical education.
Although Liège owes its university to King Wilhelm the First, its first university charter dates from the imperial decree of March 17th, 1808. The Principality of Liège, as well as the rest of what is now Belgium, was then part of the Napoleonic Empire. This decree established the Imperial University and designated Liège as headquarters of the Academy. Its first rector, Franz-Antoine Percelat, a native of Strasburg, founded the Faculty of Sciences, in line with the industrial activity of the four departments which made up the Liège Academy: Ourthe, Lower Meuse, Roer and Sambre-et-Meuse. The Faculty was created through the order of September 25, 1811, now accepted as the actual date when university activities in Liège started. This new faculty was housed in the buildings occupied by the College of Jesuits and is part of the university to this day. Four professors began lecturing on December 9th of the same year.
Even though the decree also provided for the creation of a faculty of arts, the latter was a long time coming. However, the teaching of medicine made significant progress under the Empire. Two Liégeois, Nicolas Ansiaux , a surgeon, and Joseph-Nicolas Comhaire, a medical doctor, opened a school of anatomy in Liège in 1806 that prepared candidates for the exams of the medical jury, which granted the degree of health officer. Micoud d'Umons, Prefect of Ourte, designed a course in clinical medicine in 1812.
When Wilhelm the First reorganized higher education in the United Kingdom of the Netherlands after Napoleon's defeat in 1815, he decided to set up three universities in its southern provinces : Ghent, Liège and Leuven (decree of September 25, 1816). The Academia leodiensis was officially established on September 25, 1817. Its first rector, Dr. Toussaint-Dieudonné Sauveur, was a doctor of medicine. The Faculties of Medicine and Sciences instituted under the Empire were maintained, and two new faculties were added: The Faculty of Philosophy and Letters and the Faculty of Law. In its first year of existence, the university numbered 259 students. Latin was the only language used during courses and exams. In 1825, The School of Mining was founded, further enhancing the already strong reputation of the university. A chair of pedagogy was created two years later.
The creation of Belgium led to radical changes in the system of higher education. All regulations and traditions of the former regime were abolished, which resulted in Liège's losing its Faculty of Philosophy and Letters. The Organic Law of September 25, 1835 re-instituted the Faculty and granted the Universities of Liège and Ghent the official status of state universities. Leuven was abolished, but the Catholic Party quickly transferred the Catholic University it had founded in Mechelen in 1834 to Leuven. Meanwhile, the Brussels Liberals created the Free University. The main outlines of the university landscape as we know it today were drawn at that time.
Several outstanding scholars brought much renown to the university from the second half of the 19th century on. The student body became known throughout Europe thanks to the first International Student Congress which took place in Liège in 1865. The student population reached one thousand in the 1876-1877 academic year.
The year 1881 was of particular significance to the university. The City Council decided to build the Institute of Zoology, located at what is now called Quai Van Beneden. The general plan examined the construction of no less than ten new buildings, among them the Cointe Observatory and the rebuilding of Bavière Hospital, named after Ernest de Bavière, the Prince-Bishop who had donated his house in 1600 as a hospice.
Cointe Observatory Land on which Bavière was built
After the First World War, damage done by the occupying forces first had to be repaired before the University could respond to the technological evolution of the post-war world. In 1924, it acquired the property of the former Abbey of Val-Benoît which would eventually house almost the entire Faculty of Applied Sciences. That same year, a scientific station was created in the "Hautes fagnes"; indeed, field research would become a strong point of the University. In 1947, it founded an observatory in Haute-Provence and helped set up a scientific station in Jungfraujoch (Switzerland) two years later. In 1965, an underwater and oceanographic research station was built in Calvi, Corsica.
Two developments were of particular significance in the years following World War Two: the university campus moved to Sart Tilman, and Belgium became a federal state. As a state institution, the University of Liège had long been under the control of a centralized state, which limited its autonomy particularly when it came to appointing professors. The status quo was altered in 1953 when state universities were given the authority to manage themselves and appoint their own academic officials. A board of governors headed by the Rector and the School and University Construction Fund were created that same year. Rector Marcel Dubuisson responded to these changes by launching a project which would see the university move one year later to a wooded area of more than 2,000 hectares on the hills overlooking Liège. This is where the new campus would stand, right in the midst of a natural setting. Work began in December 1962 with the construction of the first internal road section. Architect Claude Strebelle, urban planner and coordinator until 1985, is responsible for the general appearance of the campus. However, the economic crisis which hit the country at the end of the 1970s slowed down the work appreciably and forced the University to curtail its ambitions.
The legislation passed in 1971, after the student revolts of 1968-1969, brought the University in line with the zeitgeist. Democratization, participation and openness were the watchwords of the era : The Board of Governors now included representatives from the student body, the scientific and technical staff, and individuals from outside the university. The University lost some of the public nature of the mandate conferred upon it during the Dutch regime, when it was assimilated to the justice system and the army. Maurice Welsh, rector at the time, implemented these changes seamlessly.
The Belgian state was also in the process of evolution. Federalism became firmly established, with the University coming under the authority of the Communauté française (the French Community of Belgium) in January 1989. The official name of the institution was changed from the State University at Liège to the University of Liège, thus marking a turning point in its history.
Aerial view of the northern part of the Sart Tilman campus