• Fryslân’s academic roots

    With the arrival of a RUG faculty in Leeuwarden, Friesland is getting its ‘own’ university for the second time. Together with the RUG/Campus Fryslân dean and a historian, the UK had a look at the location of the first Frisian university in the sixteenth century.

    Franeker had it. Campus Fryslân is getting it.

    Now that the province of Friesland, the University Council, and the other parties involved are in agreement, the RUG/Campus Fryslân can go ahead. For the second time in history, Friesland is getting a university. The first one was founded in Franeker in 1585. The second one is in Leeuwarden. RUG/Campus Fryslân dean Jouke de Vries, historian Jacob van Sluis, and the UK go back to the roots of the Frisian university.

    We meet on Franeker’s main street. De Vries arrives carrying an umbrella: ‘It’s a shame the weather is so bad today.’ De Vries, who was born in Balk, is fairly unfamiliar with Franeker and is looking forward to Jacob van Sluis’ tour.

    Van Sluis, originally a theologian, has been working on and off for 30 years on mapping the history of the university in Franeker. Last year, his book, De academie van Vriesland, was published.

    The outer wall of the former cloister building where the university was located.

    Van Sluis takes us to what is left of the monastery. ‘The university was housed here, in the erstwhile monastery’, say Van Sluis. ‘Look, in that corner, near the window: that was the anatomy classroom.’ The place never ceases to astonish him: ‘Dissections were on the first floor. That means they had to drag all the bodies and research material upstairs. Makes no sense, right?’

    Americans love it

    The top floor also housed the library. ‘You can see where the floors had to be reinforced over and over again to be able to support the ever-growing collection of books’, says Van Sluis. He indicates the extra cramp irons attached to the floor, visible from the outside.

    By now, we have made it to the former university’s botanical garden. De Vries has a look around. ‘This is what I need to promote the university. This is history. We should do something with this. We’re called Campus Fryslân for good reason.’ He explains that the funding has all been arranged, but that he continues to seek sponsors and investors. That is why he will be going to America in a little while. ‘Americans just love historical facts like these. They’ll know what to do with this, as do I. Just imagine: this garden is where the professors walked.’

    The academy garden.

    Free beer

    The plan is for the Campus Fryslân to admit 200 new students every year. According to historian Van Sluis, that is the same number the Franeker university used to accept. ‘Getting a university education was very popular in that time’, he says. ‘Students were exempt from certain jobs and didn’t have to pay excise tax on beer.’ Jouke de Vries laughs: ‘Yeah, that would definitely get me enough applications come September. Free beer. Better not.’

    Free beer in the Netherlands’ oldest student pub, ‘De Bogt fen Guné’.

    For the time being, De Vries is not worried about the number of enrolments; out of 200, he hopes half will be international students. He will do whatever it takes to make it happen. ‘We’ll see if it works out’, says De Vries. ‘We don’t even have a location yet.’ He promises a decision about the location of the faculty will be made soon. The dean refuses to say which locations in Leeuwarden are being considered: ‘We currently have four options and even I don’t know yet which one it’s going to be.’

    Marketing strategy

    Campus Fryslân is a faculty of the RUG, a fact which should not be forgotten. De Vries has big plans, in which he will always have to take the home base in Groningen and the city of Leeuwarden into account. ‘Friesland has many opportunities that can attract students. There is Heerenveen, city of sports, the Frisian lakes, the Wadden islands, and Franeker, with its academic history. Wouldn’t it be a shame if we can’t utilise this as some sort of marketing strategy?’

    Enthusiastically, De Vries talks about all the opportunities he sees. ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could somehow involve Franeker in Campus Fryslân?’ Franeker mayor Van Zuijlen likes the idea of this kind of collaboration. In an earlier interview, he said that he hopes that the new Frisian RUG faculty will eventually also develop activities in his city. De Vries: ‘I’ve got plenty of plans. All I need is a nice, natural connection to Groningen. We are a part of the RUG, after all.’

    Famous professors

    Van Sluis takes us to the Martena Museum, where a special lecture hall has been set up. As we walk past a portrait gallery of professors, the historian tells us that part of what made the university so attractive was the famous professors. ‘In those days, quality was hard to measure and intangible, but Franeker always had a nose for talent.’

    Professorial portrait gallery.

    De Vries asks if there were many famous Frisian professors and students. Van Sluis answers in the affirmative. ‘Definitely: Camper, Stuyvesant, Descartes, and Eaton were all connected to the university of Franeker.’ Van Sluis promises to make a list. According to De Vries, such a list can be important. ‘The university in Leiden is always bragging they had Einstein. If we have our own celebrities, that could be used to promote Campus Fryslân.’


    ‘Not all portraits are in the lecture hall’, says Van Sluis. ‘There are many more in the museum’s storage.’ De Vries is picturing it: ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could hang a few of these portraits in the brand new senate room at the Leeuwarden faculty?’ De Vries becomes even more enthusiastic when he sees that the old university’s pedel staff has been conserved. The silver-covered staff is in a display case. ‘This gives us so many opportunities. We can really use this’, the dean says.

    The ceremonial pedel.

    We continue on through the rooms of the museum. Van Sluis pauses near a portrait. It turns out to be a picture of Johannes Mulder, who used to be a professor of medicine and obstetrics in Franeker and Groningen. The reforms he carried through in medical education eventually made him famous. De Vries is beside himself with joy and quickly takes a picture with his cell phone. This is the connection he was looking for: professors who taught in both Franeker and Groningen.



    Before we say goodbye, Van Sluis tells us about his new research: the books in Franeker’s university library. Because, says the historian: ‘Many of these books were preserved and belong to Friesland. But after the university was closed, the technical books from the Frisian university library went to the Delft University of Technology.’ De Vries’ reaction is almost predictable: ‘We need to get those books back. Back to the new Frisian faculty.’ He tries to think of who he knows in Delft and which strings he can pull. ‘You know’, says De Vries, ‘people who read this may think I’m a megalomaniac, but so be it. I just see so many opportunities to make this faculty into a success.’

    Take note: on this historical map, the top of the map is facing south. Zoom in all the way on the numbers for more information.