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Purpose & Timelessness

Europe already exists, and its people have shared one common institution for centuries, the university. Indeed, Europeans can rally around their universities as agents of their intellectual past and future, considering that these institutions have common aims and common methodologies when exploring and disseminating knowledge – be it theoretical or practical. That was the message given in 1988 at the 900th anniversary of the University of Bologna, considered to be the oldest academic institution in Europe.

In 1888, Giosué Carducci, said the same thing of Italy. After the wars that had led to the political unity of the peninsula, the country needed a mental focus – it could not be the Church as the kingdom was still in conflict with the Pope over the pontificial rights on Rome, a matter that would be settled in 1922 only. The seats of academia, however, were spread all over the country, from Padova to Torino, from Milano to Catania, from Genova to Naples or Bari. The pursuit of knowledge, i.e., science and progress, could be the rallying cry for all Italians, the symbol of their re-conquered modernity. The 800th anniversary of the University of Bologna was the occasion chosen for the young nation to give allegiance to an intellectual identity based on the courage of reason and innovation in the fight against ignorance and obscurantism.

In 1988, Giuseppe Caputo, the organiser of the 900th anniversary festivities in Bologna, referring to that model, could point to the deepening community of European countries –not only among the 15 members of the Union due to be achieved in 1992 but also among all nations of the continent, that were still divided by an Iron Curtain inherited from the Second World War. These many countries all shared in a common understanding of the university as a key for their development, scientific, cultural or economic. They all supported academic centres of knowledge, ancient or new, such centres that concurred in their self-understanding of the basic values and principles that were making sense of their role in the scientific and social evolution of their communities. These represented the foundations common to a Europe of the minds, those of its citizens, a Europe that simply needed to be unveiled in order for its existence to be recognised.

The European movement had long been trying to bring together the fragments of a geographically and historically divided. That effort could be called an incremental, “bottom up” approach. The Bologna message takes an opposite stand: Europe exists beyond its divisions and it has been in existence for nearly a thousand years, in particular through its universities, the institutions that shaped its values and long-term objectives. Recognising this evidence represents a kind of “top down” rationale for the continent’s integration. The Magna Charta is the result of such a conviction as it outlines the values, scope and means of a common intellectual venture, a European venture woven by its many seats of academic knowledge.

The Charter was to sum up in a few articles the main principles and values the universities can recognise as their common European inheritance; thus, it became the core of the 900th anniversary celebrations. Drafted in 1987 by a small group of university leaders - rectors and presidents from EU countries mainly -, who had gathered in Barcelona under the aegis of Carmine Romanzi, the then President of the Association of European Universities (CRE), the document was signed in the ceremonies of 18 September 1988 that brought to a close one year of festivities in Bologna. Some 500 university leaders had been invited to join, with gown and colours, the academic function organised on the Piazza Maggiore of the old city, a few hundred meters away from the Archiginnasio, the ancient seat of the University. The power of intelligence, i.e., the capacity to link elements of knowledge in innovative ways for social and scientific development, was recalling its partners in society – the government, the church, the city fathers, representatives of trade and industry -, all of them present on the square as committed observers - that its means and ends are at the centre of the European mind and behaviour, because they represent a shared way of life and thought. Participants were coming from all over Europe, East and West, as well as of distant parts of the planet where the university concept had migrated over the centuries, from America to Asia, from Africa to Australia. The solemnity of the ritual, the splendour of the site, the beauty of the music and of the texts composed by members of the University of Bologna – from Dante to Umberto Eco – gave a renewed and elated sense of identity to the higher education community in Europe – and beyond, in so far as it referred to similar principles and working rules.

In 1998, to mark the 10th anniversary of that event, Fabio Roversi-Monaco, the rector of the University of Bologna, and Josep Bricall, the then President of the CRE, - both among the original co-authors of the Magna Charta, decided to launch an Observatory on the universities’ fundamental values and rights to monitor the implementation of the principles outlined in the Charter. Indeed, Europe had changed since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the new political situation of an open territory (in which national borders were less and less important) called for constant analysis of the changes affecting academia, from within or from without, as the relevance of old references was being questioned by the sheer speed and extent of social transformations in the region – from Lisbon to Vladivostok. The Observatory was incorporated as a Foundation in April 2000, in Bologna, and it organised its first convention in September 2001, after a year of experimental activities. Its only “weight” derives from the commitment of the 500 universities that have endorsed the principles of the Magna Charta. As a group of experienced university leaders, the Observatory claims to be a reference group able to give sound opinions on the long term development of higher education and research in today’s society. To achieve relevance, universities have been granted institutional autonomy and academic freedom, i.e., they have been offered unique conditions for a responsible role in society that motivates their accountability as partners in the evolution of their communities and of Europe as a whole.