History of the Faculty

History of the Faculty

Original premises of the Faculty of Arts on Kapitulská Street in the centre of Bratislava. © Juraj Šedivý

After the establishment of the Czechoslovakia in October 1918 it became necessary to deal with the task of establishing a university in Slovakia. In contrast to the Czech lands, there was no university in Slovakia at that time. Professors of the Elisabeth University, which had been established in Bratislava shortly before the First World War, terminated their activity after the disintegration of Austria-Hungary and most of them emigrated to Hungary. Already at the issuing of the Act of 27 June 1919 on the creation of a Czechoslovak state university in Bratislava it was clear that this Slovak university would suffer from an acute shortage of professors and associate professors capable of lecturing and running schools. In spite of this situation, political circles realized the need to prepare high school teachers and the need to undertake scholarly research into the nation’s history, language, literature and art. The Faculty of Arts was the third faculty of Comenius University after its establishment in 1919 to begin its activity, doing so on 23 September 1921. At the faculty’s constitutive meeting, seven newly-appointed professors met and decided to commence with lectures and seminars for the first 30 full-time students and 34 students with individual courses of study from the middle of October of that year. Dr Josef Hanuš, Professor in the History of Czech Literature, was elected dean and Jozef Škultéty, Professor of Slovak Language and Literature, was elected vice-dean.

The faculty was organized into ‘chairs’, which were always held by one professor at a time. At the same time schools with specialized libraries and study rooms were developed, where a professor’s assistant was in attendance. In addition to lectures, the development of these schools was key to the learning process for the individual studies of students and the research work of professors. The professorial body of the faculty saw in this its main role as being the development of the foundations of disciplines focusing on Slovakia, where the Faculty of Arts had an irreplaceable place as the only professional centre for such branches of academia. However, the faculty also gradually widened the ranks of professors in other disciplines, and thus in the 1927/1928 academic year there were more than 20 professors in 13 programmes of study.

In addition to teaching, a space for research was also developed in the faculty’s disciplines. Already in 1922 the first issue of the scholarly periodical Zborník FiF UK was published, which was divided into 13 thematic sections and whose tradition is still maintained today. This periodical creates a place for the publication of the research work of the teaching staff of the faculty. It was practically the first academic periodical in the social science disciplines in the inter-war period in Slovakia. Along with this, the Spisy FiF UK series of monographs was also published. Among the publishing activities of the Learned Society worthy of mention are the eleven volumes of the periodical review Slovanská Bratislava (Slavic Bratislava).  The professors of the Faculty of Arts took part in the popularization of scholarship and work with the wider non-academic public. Whether this was in the Extenzie Univerzity Komenského (Extension of Comenius University) programme or outside of this framework, professors made the public aware in Bratislava and beyond of the results of their work. There was also the opportunity to cultivate contacts with the Slovak intelligentsia in the regions, who eagerly awaited the latest findings in the social sciences.

In the inter-war period 760 full-time students graduated from the faculty. Most were future high school teachers, but there were also amongst them new experts in a number of areas of the social sciences and humanities. Space for the Faculty of Arts was another contentious issue in the establishing of academic life. Initially the faculty used the premises on Kapitulská Street of the former Elisabeth University. Later on the faculty got more classroom space in the Girls’ Grammar School on Dunajská Street. The faculty moved into premises more befitting its standing only in 1936 when Comenius University secured the building on Šafárik Square, which had been initially planned as a mercantile exchange.

The new main building of the Faculty of Arts on Gondová Street was built in early 20th century and it served as the local headquarters of Austro-Hungarian army. After the establishment of Czechoslovakia in 1918 the ministry for the administration of Slovakia was located there. © Juraj Šedivý

1938 and 1939 brought significant changes to faculty life. The declaration of Slovak autonomy on 6 October 1938 was accompanied by anti-Czech demonstrations. In November of that year the first ten Czech professors of the Faculty of Arts were dismissed. Those who remained were under continual government surveillance and the faculty leadership had to continuously seek exceptions for them. Therefore, nearly all of them gradually left Slovakia. Comenius University was renamed the Slovak University under the new university law, which opened the doors to more influence from the Ministry of Education and National Culture. However, everyday life at the faculty was negatively affected to a greater degree by anti-Semitism, parliamentary discussions on the limitation of university education for women, and pressure to increase cooperation with German universities and research institutions. In spite of the war, the expansion of research disciplines at the faculty continued and some significant academic works were published in this period.

During 1944 the events of the war marked academic life at the Faculty of Arts. Slovakia was now within flying range of Anglo-American military aircraft and the functioning of the faculty was paralysed by the evacuation of the library. During air raids on Bratislava, the faculty premises and classrooms on Šafárik Square suffered considerable damage. During the holiday period, the Slovak National Uprising broke out and several students of the faculty joined in. In this regard, Ladislav Dzurányi, a graduate in French language and literature, entered history as an interpreter to French partisans and fell in battle near Strečno; the philosopher František Salenka was killed in the uprising and faculty graduate and gifted historian Alexander Markuš perished at Mauthausen concentration camp.

After the war a new era began at the faculty. In July 1945 the Slovak National Council abolished all the decrees of the war-time Slovak government. The faculty returned to life in peace and went on cultivating the pre-war democratic traditions. Some of the Czech professors came back or at least commuted from their new workplaces to lecture on a regular basis. The management of the faculty was taken over by the younger generation, who had habilitated in the pre-war period and who had run the faculty during the war.

However, far-reaching changes awaited the faculty after the communists took power in 1948. The new regime proclaimed the idea of the “new socialist person” and stated that the entire educational system and all cultural activity was to be subordinated to its political goals and the ideology of Marxism. The humanities had a specific place in this process. Leftist political thinking had already been present before 1948 at the Faculty of Arts as the struggle against fascism had brought many students to the communist left. Many students were members of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, while others joined in political struggles within their student organizations even before February 1948. Marxist ideology also found its adherents among the faculty teaching staff. However, the vast majority of faculty of students did not identify with the communist ideology, although they did not express this publicly for fear of possible reprisal from the state machinery.  The communist party was not interested in the preservation of academic freedom of scholarship or research. Its aim was rather to gain control over people’s thinking. Teachers unwilling to yield to the communist state, just as they had been unwilling to yield to the fascist one, had to leave the faculty. These changed circumstances were reflected in the new University Act of 1950, which entirely subordinated the faculty to the political supervision of the communist party, which implied its leading position in a number of ways. The communist party put its own intellectual elite in the faculty in order to fill vacant positions and bring the faculty towards the platform of Marxist sciences. However, it is important to point out that many of these people managed the task of “dialectic unity of continuity and discontinuity” and in spite of bringing the new Marxist methods into the humanities they also proved capable of using their political position to create new centres at the Faculty of Arts and train a new generation of specialists.

However, academic research, the thinking and training of new generations of intelligentsia can never be put entirely under political control. This was confirmed by the development of the faculty in the second half of the 1950s and the 1960s. The faculty had 33 teachers (of them 14 were professors) in the 1950/1951 academic year; yet a year later there were 82 teachers, and after merging with the Teachers’ College and some other departments serving the needs of the whole faculty the number reached 230. This turbulent and extensive growth enforced the need for taking on young graduates in assistant positions; these young members of faculty developed both as personalities and as experts in the 1960s: that is under the new ideological movement before 1968.

The growth in the number of teachers and students caused problems with space at the university premises. In 1960 it was therefore necessary for some departments and the Dean’s Office of the Faculty of Arts to move into two wings of a former government building on Gondová Street, which the faculty now has entirely in its possession.

Current view of the main building of the Faculty of Arts, Comenius University.

The development of international contacts reached a new dimension during the 1960s even though they were predominated by ties with other socialist countries with partner universities in Halle, Wittenberg, Plovdiv, and Moscow and so on. In the 1960s some young faculty members were able to have some academic training at Western European universities through the Humboldt Scholarship and other foundations. At this time the foundations were laid for the great international event of the Faculty of Arts – the Studia Academica Slovaca (SAS) summer school of Slovak language and culture, where foreign students can perfect their Slovak and learn more about some aspects of Slovakia’s historical and cultural development.

It was impossible for a faculty dealing with the humanities not to reflect the developments in 1960s Czechoslovak and particularly Slovak society which peaked in 1968. The younger generation of researchers and teachers, which had been forming in the period of the political thaw after 1956, was joined by older professors and together with students they actively participated in the democratization process triggered by the Prague Spring. It was mostly students as well as some teachers who in addition to internal academic discussions also engaged in democratization publicly and attempted to put the thesis of ‘socialism with a human face’ into practice. These great hopes and expectations were destroyed by the military intervention by the armies of the Warsaw Pact at the end of August 1968. In the first days of the occupation, soldiers shot and killed innocent civilians in the immediate proximity of the faculty.

While the participation of the faculty in the revival process of 1968 was intense, so much harder was the impact of the process of “normalization” and the vetting at the beginning of the 1970s. This process affected the students and teachers who had in the dramatic days after 21 August 1968 occupied the assembly hall and in various forms (such as hunger strikes) protested against the military occupation of our country. The reprisals were not long in coming. Many people were expelled from studies or dismissed from the faculty. Over the following 20 years, others were not allowed to progress in their careers, were banned from teaching or similar. It was not until after 1989 that these people were granted rehabilitation and some satisfaction.

The political changes at the end of the 1980s were triggered by perestroika in the Soviet Union. The leadership of the communist party nominally this policy, yet they did nothing to break the one-party monopoly. This untenable situation resulted in the Velvet Revolution in November 1989, which took down the totalitarian regime without any resistance. Asides from the students of Bratislava’s fine arts schools, it was students of the Faculty of Arts, who took the most active part in the struggle for implementing the changes after 17 November. Several students even became members of parliament in the Slovak National Council. 1989 for the faculty represented a very positive change. With the abolition of the constitutional article on the leading role of the communist party in society, the screening and supervision by party organs of teachers and students ended. All the traditional academic rights and freedoms were renewed, including the right to decide on the present and future direction of the faculty. The academic senate, elected by the faculty’s academic community, became the controlling body of the management of the faculty. The faculty justifiably parted ways with a number of teachers who had made their political service to the past regime a higher priority than their expertise. After many years the academic community freely elected a new dean, Assoc. Prof.  Ivan Slimák, Ph.D., an expert on Russian literature.

Since 1990 the faculty has been going through a number of significant changes. These changes have concerned the implementation of legislation conditions brought about by amendments to the University Act and the deepening of the organizational and content compatibility of Slovak university education with European norms in accordance with the conclusions of the Bologna Process (a credit system and a three-tier organization of study). All of these changes required a lot of effort not only from faculty management but also from all teachers and students.

In the area of research, the doors to international cooperation have been literally flung open after 1989. Teachers and students have used the opportunity to undertake study stays under scholarship in neighbouring countries as well as further afield. New contacts have been forged between our faculty and a number of faculties abroad. Informal cooperation on a number of projects has been developed within various departments. The outdated state-managed plan of research has been replaced by state-funded grant agencies, which although they are subsidised to a much lower level than in neighbouring countries, have helped in financing and reviving basic and applied research. Thanks to this, publishing activities have become more intensive and an integral part of the activities of every teacher at the faculty. This has helped to remove certain wage levels and the employees of those departments which achieve exceptional results receive financial bonuses, which is a rather effective way of motivating further research activity at our faculty.

Developments after 1989 have brought significant changes also in the teaching process. In 1990 new study programmes were developed which not only had new content, but which also in their offering of various elective courses gave students more room to participate in the profile of their discipline. This trend was deepened after 2000 with the move to a credit system of study and the separation of studies to Bachelor’s, Master’s and doctoral level, which has allowed students to decide autonomously on their specialization and level of their attained university education. Students who speak foreign languages well have taken up the opportunity of international mobility opportunities and complete a part of their studies and chosen universities abroad.

The turn of the millennium in academia was marked by not only a fundamental qualitative change in content and form of university study, but also in the sharp rise in the number of public and private universities in Slovakia. At most of them new faculties of arts, social science and education have been established. The Faculty of Arts has nonetheless managed to retain its position as the foremost educational and research institution in Slovakia with a focus on the social sciences and humanities in spite of keen competition. The faculty attracts both domestic and international students due to the quality of its teaching, research production and wide spectrum of offered courses.