The Viadrina University in Frankfurt (Oder) is celebrating its 500th anniversary Wednesday. Shut for 180 years, it was revamped as a "European university" 15 years ago and continues to maintain an excellent reputation.
The Viadrina is traditional -- but forward-looking
One of Germany's smallest state universities, the Viadrina has around 4,000 students -- 30 percent of whom come from Poland -- and a teaching staff of 160. During last year's winter semester, students from 79 nations were enrolled at the university -- a considerably higher percentage than in other German universities.
Gesine Schwan -- she could have been president
For the last seven years, its president has been Gesine Schwan, a charismatic political scientist who has long been active in German politics and was chosen by the SPD as its nominee for the presidential elections in 2004, only to be beaten by Horst Köhler.
The university's best-known graduates include the scholars Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt, as well as the philosopher Ulrich von Hutten, the theologian and political leader Thomas Müntzer and the writer Heinrich von Kleist.
A chequered history
The Alma Mater Viadrina was founded in 1506 by the Prince of Brandenburg, Joachim I, as the state's foremost university. Frankfurt was chosen as the location on account of its accessibility, its proximity to the sea and -- perhaps more surprisingly -- the fact it was then surrounded by vineyards. The university was organized into four faculties, law, theology, philosophy, and medicine, and enjoyed an excellent reputation in Brandenburg and the surrounding regions.
Naturalist and scientist Alexander von Humboldt
It soon built up a reputation as a bastion of tolerance, gaining independence from local politics and exempting its students from both tax contributions and military service.
As the various churches vied for prominence over subsequent centuries, the Viadrina remained characterized by religious tolerance, withstanding the effects of the Reformation in the 1530s and becoming, by the early 17th century, a strongly Calvinist university even though the theology faculty retained a Lutheran department.
In its heyday, it was a stronghold of humanism and enlightened values, spawning generations of high-profile graduates who went on to become diplomats, lawyers and high-ranking members of the military.
Despite being plagued by financial problems that persist to this day, the Viadrina University continued to flourish, and by the 19th century, it was home to some 55,000 students.
Berlin's Humboldt University
But in 1811, the founding of the University of Berlin, now known as the Humboldt University, led to the closure of the Frankfurt premises. The Viadrina moved to Breslau, where it merged with the existing university, the Leopoldina, in order to boost its competitiveness.
The old university building in Frankfurt was destroyed in World War II and finally cleared in the 1960s. The arch of the main entrance has been preserved as a monument. International
In 1991, the university was re-established as Viadrina European University, comprising three faculties: Economics and Business Studies; Law; and Cultural Studies. A prime focus of the educational program was to attract students from throughout Europe in order to create a multi-national student body.
30 percent of the Viadrina's students come from Poland
Poised between Frankfurt and Slubice, the university's location has always been its main strength. It now maintains close cooperation with the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, Poland, with the two universities jointly operating the Collegium Polonicum, located just opposite the Viadrina on the Polish side of the Oder River.
"Our geographical proximity to Poland is a trump card we can't afford to ignore," said Gesine Schwan in a recent interview with Die Welt. "In future we must continue to attract international students as well as providing courses with an international slant for our German students. More and more students are set to study abroad in the future."