1938: New Higher Education Act and the right to confer doctorates

The new Higher Education Act of 1938 must be viewed in the context of HSG’s right to award doctoral degrees. In the spring semester of 1937, the Senate commissioned two law professors, Walther Hug and Hans Nawiasky, to examine the existing legal basis of the right to confer doctoral degrees. They saw this task as an opportunity to address a concern of their own, namely turning HSG, which by that time had become a foundation under private law, into an independent institution under public law. The reason for this change in status was the fact that the other Swiss universities did not want to recognise the right of a private foundation to award doctoral degrees. For this transformation a new Higher Education Act was necessary; a draft of it, prepared by Hug and Nawiasky, passed through all instances in the course of 1938 in the shortest possible time and was unanimously approved by the Cantonal Parliament on 17 November 1938. It could thus come into force on 19 December 1938. This impressively succinct piece of legislation, comprising only four articles, ensured the future rise of the school to what it is today. The articles stipulated that (1) HSG was an independent institution under public law with legal personality and sole responsibility for the procurement of its funding; that (2) the cantonal government was to take overall responsibility for the school and be represented on the school council by one member; that (3) the school had the right to confer doctorates and other academic degrees, based on special award regulations which were to be approved by the cantonal government; and lastly, that (4) academic research and teaching at the school was to be free and independent within the framework of existing legislation. The third article of the new Higher Education Act finally resolved the issue of HSG’s right to award doctoral degrees.

In view of the resistance that the other universities in Switzerland had put up against HSG’s right to award doctorates, it seemed wise to award them very sparingly. This was attempted through several measures. For one thing, it was decided that students could aspire to a doctoral degree only in the core subjects of business administration, economics, and law (especially business law). There was certainly no unanimity about this matter, though, which led to heated discussions among the teaching faculty; many professors felt that their subjects were being pushed into the background, since Foreign Languages, Technology, and Commodity Economics had also been central subjects in the curriculum for a long time. It was only thanks to Professor Nef’s mediation and President Hug’s diplomatic skills that the Senate could be persuaded, albeit reluctantly, to approve the draft version of the regulations governing the award of doctoral degrees, so that the draft could proceed to the next stage.

After the new regulations had entered into force, a further general appeal was made to be sparing with the conferral of doctoral degrees: "The value of a title of this kind relies upon the dignity which its bearers go on to demonstrate through their intellectual and moral commitment; but the value of such a title also depends upon the depth and academic value of the doctoral training undergone and the rigour of the examination which that training presupposes".

In this respect, perhaps a small institution such as HSG was in fact better positioned to make a suitable selection from among the applicants, more easily than may have been the case elsewhere, and to enable its doctoral candidates to obtain a sustainable, in-depth specialist education in an especially direct exchange with the teaching staff concerned. As far as the rigour of the doctoral examinations was concerned, the draft version of the award regulations provided for requirements that were stricter than at any other Swiss university for this discipline. The requirements were that, after having graduated, doctoral candidates were to attend doctoral seminars for two semesters, that their thesis had to be recognised and accepted as an independent piece of academic work, and that they had to pass a strict examination.

Due to these circumstances, HSG resisted the temptation to mark the occasion of the school’s 40th anniversary, on 13 May 1939, by awarding a Doctor honoris causa to well-known figures. The intention here was to confer such honorary degrees only when a large number of students had completed their prescribed studies and earned their doctorates under the award regulations that came into force on 14 April. It was not until the occasion of the 50th anniversary celebrations, in 1949, that the first honorary doctorates were awarded. As an alternative, in 1939, several patrons of the school were appointed as honorary members of the academic Senate (with a seat and a vote in this body). Professor Theophil Bernet, the founding initiator of HSG, Dr. Eduard Scherrer, the former mayor of St. Gallen, and Emil Diem-Saxer were honoured in this way.

The general joy that was felt over the new legal status can be seen in the decision to postpone the annual academic celebration for 1938 to 21 December, so that the celebration could take place after the new Higher Education Act, with the right to confer doctorates, had become legally binding.

President of the Cantonal Council Dr. A. Roemer, the responsible representative of the council in the Department of Education and, as such, a strong advocate of the new Higher Education Act, congratulated the school on behalf of the government; and, in an enthusiastic address, he wished the school every success in achieving the same leading position in the field of economics and business studies, in due time, as the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich had achieved in the field of the technical sciences. The president of the alumni association, Dr. h.c. Curt E. Wild, presented the President of HSG with a donation of over CHF 50,000 as the basis for an academic research fund.

What was still missing at the end of 1938, however, was the recognition of HSG’s equal status by the other Swiss universities and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. President Hug did an excellent job here as well, managing to convince all the other Swiss university rectors of what the school had already achieved and of how its plans for further development were taking shape, so that on 28 January 1939, at the Rectors' Conference of Swiss Universities, HSG was formally recognised as being equal to the other universities.