With the inauguration of USI, in 1996, the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland chose to play an active role towards the intellectual and socio-economic growth of the country, and not only – by leveraging at best its convenient cultural position between northern Europe and the Mediterranean.
The failure of CUSI and the legacy of Stefano Franscini
USI saw the light ten years after the failure of the project for a post-graduate continuing education institution in Ticino (CUSI, Centro universitario della Svizzera italiana), by the initiative of a number of concerned citizens and leading intellectuals determined to maintain the essential elements of statesman Stefano Franscini’s vision, a founding father of modern Ticino who as early as 1844 underlined the importance of higher education in Ticino. At the time, the Canton south of the Alps was poor, rural and with high levels of illiteracy, and Franscini saw in education, at not only basic but also advanced levels, a powerful means for emancipation.
Over a century after the original ideas of Stefano Franscini, in the 1990s Ticino had become a wealthy region with an affluent services industry, but was also hit by a major economic crisis. In this context, the founders of USI saw in our university the opportunity for new development and empowerment of a region to be acknowledged for its role within the Federal state and in the world.
"The proposal for a University in the Italian-speaking region of Switzerland is brought forward not just despite the crisis, but, if anything, because we are in a crisis.
USI embodies Canton Ticino’s desire to dare and hope”
Giuseppe Buffi, Councilor of State of the Canton Ticino (1986-2000)
The birth of USI, where those with a purpose will find ways to achieve it
USI is the result of the combination of two projects initiated in the 1990s:
- 1992-1994: the idea of architect Mario Botta to create an Academy of architecture in Ticino, with the support of Councilor of State Giuseppe Buffi, minister of Education from 1986 to 2000, and the mayor of the City of Mendrisio, Carlo Croci;
- 1993-1995: the vision of a “freie Universität” (free University) in Lugano, with a faculty of economics and a faculty of communication sciences, championed by the then mayor of the City of Lugano, Giorgio Giudici and city council members Giuliano Bignasca and Giorgio Salvadè. A scientific group, formed by Mauro Baranzini, Sergio Cigada and Lanfranco Senn, joined thereafter by Luigi Dadda and Remigio Ratti, were then commissioned with the development of the project.
The ‘marriage’ of the two projects is celebrated by Giuseppe Buffi, assisted by Mauro Martinoni and Mauro Dell’Ambrogio, and is enacted on October 3rd, 1995, with the Ticino parliament (Grand Council) approval of the Law on the Università della Svizzera italiana, thus establishing a public university with three faculties, designed to stand out for their novelty within the Swiss university system:
- the Academy of Architecture, built on the centuries-old legacy of past and contemporary Ticinese masters, is defined by an educational philosophy where building is an art, rather than just a mere technical matter;
- the Faculty of Economics, created to provide new stimuli to the third financial marketplace in Switzerland with a curriculum combining topics on quantitative methods and social-economic analysis;
- the Faculty of Communication Sciences, unique in Switzerland for its approach to communication as a human condition, beyond its mere aspect of it being an instrument.
One year later, upon formal approval by the Swiss Science and Innovation Council, on October 21st, 1996 USI opened its doors to the first enrolled students and gave its first classes.
Federal Councilor Ruth Dreifuss, during a speech given at the first Dies academicus on March 8th, 1997, was keen in outlining the events that led to the creation of USI: “those with a purpose will find ways to achieve it”.
From the very beginning, USI was defined by its open, informal and dynamic culture and by the freedom to create, initiate and experiment.
Soon after the first Dies (March 8th, 1997), in the year 2000, the first degrees were awarded and, at the same time, the definite acknowledgement of the Federal Council was announced, certifying Ticino with the status of Cantonal University.
- Informatics and Italian studies
In 2004, the Faculty of Informatics was inaugurated by then President Marco Baggiolini, with the purpose to address the challenges of society’s digital revolution with an educational and research curricula that considers informatics primarily as a new relationship between man and reality.
In 2007, the Institute of Italian Studies is created within the Faculty of Communication Sciences, enhancing USI’s role in promoting multilinguism in Switzerland and forming the ideal venue for combining Swiss identity and Italian civilization.
- Computational science and Biomedical sciences
During his time as President of USI, Piero Martinoli oversaw the creation of the Institute of Computational Science and two important developments in the field of Biomedical sciences. After the affiliation, in 2010, of the Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB), in 2014 the institution of the Faculty in Biomedical Sciences was approved, representing thus the contribution of USI in solving an urgent national problem, the dearth of medical doctors trained in Switzerland. The novelty of the project consists in the joint collaboration with other Swiss universities: ETH Zurich, University of Basel and University of Zurich.
- The first Rector
A timeline of events that lead to the creation of a university in southern Switzerland:
A document preserved in the historical archives of the City of Lucerne provides evidence of the first attempts to establish a university in Lugano, at first by Somascan Fathers, then by the Jesuits – both failed.
The Parliament of the Canton Ticino (Grand Council) approves the project of Stefano Franscini for the creation of an academic institution in Ticino (“Accademia Ticinese”), but the project is shelved, due to the financial troubles of the Canton and to the rivalries between the cities of Locarno, Bellinzona and Lugano.
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, several discussions took place and at least new three attempts were made, none of which were successful.
The Grand Council approves the project for an institute of continuous education, the “Centro Universitario della Svizzera italiana” (CUSI), but the project was rejected by referendum in 1986.
At the celebrations for the 700th anniversary of the Swiss Confederation, Federal councilor Flavio Cotti gives as peech in Poschiavo, underlining the potential for the Italian-speaking regions of
the country to contribute in the academic and scientific sector and, as such, the need for a new initiative on the subject.
Mario Botta takes the cue from Roland Crottaz (President of the ETH Board) for the creation of an Academy of Architecture. Then, mandated by the Ticino government, he designs a project together with Cantonal minister Giuseppe Buffi for its realization.
The City of Lugano mandates Mauro Baranzini, Sergio Cigada and Lanfranco Senn to draft detailed project for the creation of two Faculties in Lugano. Luigi Dadda and Remigio Ratti join the team two years later.
In March, the City Council of Lugano approves the project for the creation of two Faculties, one of Communication Sciences and one of Economics.
In October, the Ticino Parliament approves the Bill for the Università della Svizzera italiana, with the two Faculties in Lugano and the Academy of Architecture in Mendrisio.
The Swiss Science Council gives the green light to the creations of the Università della Svizzera italiana. On October 21, 1996, at 8:30am, the first lectures are given on the Lugano and Mendrisio campuses.
The first Executive Master program is launched (Master of Advanced Studies in Health Economics and Social and Healthcare Management). The following year, the Executive Master of Science in Communications Management (initially MPR, today EMScom) is launched.
Together with its first degrees awarded, USI is fully accredited by the Federal Council, thus conferring Ticino the status of university Canton.
USI is one of the first universities in Switzerland to adopt the higher education framework established by the Bologna Declaration.
The Faculty of Informatics is created.
The Institute of Italian Studies is established and the Master in Italian Language, Literature and Civilisation is launched; later, in 2012, the relevant Bachelor curriculum is launched.
The new Institute of Computational Science is created within the Faculty of Informatics.
The Institute of Research in Biomedicine (IRB, Bellinzona), led by Prof. Antonio Lanzavecchia, is affiliated to USI.
Prof. Michele Parrinello (Faculty of Informatics) receives the Marcel Benoist Prize, the most important scientific award in Switzerland. The Institute for the History and Theory of Art and Architecture is created.
The Ticino Parliament approves the creation of the Faculty of Biomedical Sciences, the fifth at USI.
In 2016, a new organisational model was implemented, starting with the appointment of Boas Erez as Rector of USI.