Jagiellonian University: Cracow's Alma Mater
May 18, 2008
The Jagiellonian University is not only the oldest but also the best known and largest institution in Cracow.
The university, established in 1364 by King Casimir the Great, boasts a long and distinguished history and enjoys an excellent reputation around the world. It employs almost 7,000 people and annually teaches 46,000 students. Prof. Karol Musioł, a physicist by profession, has been the university's head since 2005.
The university has a wealth of not only personnel but also buildings, which include five museums, research laboratories and several libraries. The latter include the famous Jagiellonian Library with 6.5 million books-from early printed books and old manuscripts to contemporary writings. Because of its sheer size and scale, the university is likened to a business with a worldwide recognizable brand. Not only is it steeped in tradition, but it also has a reputation for valuable discoveries, inventions and theories. Astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, at the height of his career, thanked the Cracow Academy for all that he had accomplished.
The Jagiellonian University has played an important part in the life of Poles and their country, particularly when the country was partitioned among three neighboring countries in 1795-1918 and during World War II when Poland was under German occupation. The university is very much prominent in the lives of those who studied there. It is also renowned for its scientific discoveries, the knowledge it passes on to each new generation and the ties it has forged with other universities in Poland and abroad. Government officials from other countries are frequent visitors to the university and in particular to its Collegium Maius, the jewel of Cracow's old architecture.
The previous head of the university, Prof. Franciszek Ziejko, when asked whether he was apprehensive during dignitaries' visits to the university, replied that he was not because he kept in mind the institution's over 600-year history and its achievements. The latter resulted in the university's inclusion in the annals of world science. Distinguished visitors to the university have included Japanese Emperor Akihito; Britain's Queen Elizabeth II; Sweden's King Karol Gustav; Prince Abdullah, the brother of the Saudi Arabian king; Prince Haakon, the next in line to the Norwegian throne; and presidents and prime ministers from many countries, including Chinese leader Hu Jintao.
The Collegium Maius is the oldest headquarters of any university in central Europe except for Prague's. The building became a place of learning on July 26, 1400, after it was purchased from the Pęcherzów family. Poland's King Kazimierz Wielki founded the college with the permission of Pope Urban V. The university's name, however, is associated with the later Jagiellonian dynasty. The death of King Kazimierz halted plans to teach law, medicine and the arts there and it was King Władysław Jagiełło who later resurrected the college with permission from Pope Boniface IX. The king appointed Stanisław of Skalbmierz to the first rectorship. Jagiełło's young wife, Jadwiga, died prematurely and in her testament left money, robes and jewels to the college for the purchase of more buildings.
One of the Jagiellonian University's many heads was Aleksander Koj, a doctor and world-renowned scientist in the field of biomedicine and medical biochemistry, who held the rectorship for three consecutive terms until 1998.
The purchase of 44 hectares of land allowed the building of a modern campus close to the Cracow Technology Park, part of the Cracow Special Economic Zone. "Moreover we planned to add a 10-story wing to the Jagiellonian Library to increase its size to 33,000 square meters," said Koj. His successor, Prof. Ziejka, not only successfully completed the library's expansion in 2001 but supervised the construction, in the center of Cracow, of the Auditorium Maximum, a facility capable of seating 1,400 people.
The campus certainly modernized the university and teaching facilities will be improved still further by the planned addition by 2010 of another 100,000 sq m of campus area. In particular, plans include a new Life Science Park, part of the Jagiellonian Innovation Center and an addition to existing biological science facilities.
The Jagiellonian University is experiencing a period of prosperity. It is expanding both physically and intellectually. Demand for places at the university from both Polish and foreign students is increasing.
Winds of history
The university's history has its fair share of dramas. The most galling was during World War II when German occupiers under the command of Bruno Müller summoned 183 Polish professors to the Collegium Novum building, arrested them and then deported them to a concentration camp in Sachsenhausen near Berlin. Stanisław Estreicher, Michał Siedlecki, and Ignacy Chrzanowski, among others, died there.
The professors' imprisonment was the first attempt to destroy the Jagiellonian University. The then German governor, Hans Frank, dreamed of building a German university on the ruins of the Jagiellonian University and went as far as renaming, in 1941, the Jagiellonian Library as the Staatsbibliothek Krakau. But the university not succumb to German occupation; it started teaching in secret from 1942. As many as 132 lecturers risked their lives to educate 800 people. One of these was historian Józef Gierowski, who later became the university's head.
The postwar political climate was not favorable for the university. The communist government strove to control science education in Poland and eroded the autonomy of universities, the centers of independent thought. The effect on Cracow's Alma Mater was the loss, in 1950, of its Medical and Pharmaceutical Department, which evolved into a Medical Academy. Two years later the authorities closed the Geology Department to make way for a Mining and Metallurgical Academy. In 1953, the university saw the replacement of its Agriculture and Forestry Department with an Agricultural Academy. The final act was the closure of the Theological Department in 1954.
The Jagiellonian University was weakened for many years by this reorganization and also by lack of financing for basic requirements. Nevertheless, the university never stopped striving for excellence and step by small step embarked on restoring its reputation. It balanced mandatory ties with Soviet science with Western contacts. In the 1970s and '80s the university created, in cooperation with the Kościuszko Foundation in New York, a Summer Culture and Polish Language School. In this way the university boosted its awareness among Poles living in the U.S. and Canada. More foreign students started to come to Cracow every year.
The year 1993 was also important for the university. A new medical college, the Collegium Medicum, swallowed the Medical Academy and currently educates over 6,000 people, of which a large number are foreign students.
Signs of the times
The university has developed over many decades and today embraces the world and new directions with open arms. Last year the school founded a Confucius Institute. The university, at the initiative of Prof. Andrzej Kapiszewski, a mathematician and sociologist, beat rival universities worldwide for the right to create such an institute. Currently, over 300 people are learning Chinese in Cracow. The university's International and Political Studies Department that includes Middle Eastern and Far Eastern specializations has also enjoyed popularity for several years. The department produces graduates at all levels in Arabic, Israeli, Japanese and Chinese studies.