Liberty of Thought: An Historical Study of Crises in the Free University of Brussels


  • Dorothy E. Finnegan College of William and Mary Williamsburg


Belgium, university history, libre examen, academic freedom, crisis, students, Belgium, University History, Libre Examen, Academic Freedom, Crisis, Students


Utilizing a fluid and dynamic conceptualization of crisis, this paper discusses a variant of academic freedom, libre examen, or liberty of thought — the freedom to examine without the influence of dogma. The concept is the enduring philosophical cornerstone of l’Université Libre de Bruxelles (Free University of Brussels or ULB). Four crises, two internal and two external, demonstrate how libre examen was a crucial social-cultural factor in ULB history. In each crisis, libre examen is tested, refined, or defended, and constituents produce a resolution. The external threats consist of the establishment of the university in 1834 by Belgian Freemasons in response to Roman Catholic political dominance and the German occupation of Belgium and ULB during the First World War. The two internal challenges include a rupture between progressives and conservatives and the subsequent secession and creation of a parallel university by faculty and students in the 1890s. A 1968 revolt focused on limited participation in university governance started by students but quickly absorbed faculty and staff. The concept of crisis is explored in the conclusion, identifying the elements of trauma, risk, and resolution for each crisis.

Author Biography

Dorothy E. Finnegan, College of William and Mary Williamsburg

Dorothy E. Finnegan is associate professor in the higher education graduate program in the School of Education at The College of William and Mary Williamsburg, Virginia, USA. She earned her PhD in higher education at The Pennsylvania State University. Her research and teaching interests include the history of higher education, the historical contributions of the YMCA to higher education, university faculty careers and expertise, and comparative higher education issues.