The Free University of Brussels (French: Université libre de Bruxelles, or ULB; Dutch: Vrije Hogeschool te Brussel, later Vrije Universiteit Brussel) was a university in Brussels, Belgium. Founded in 1834 on the principle of "free inquiry" (libre examen), its founders envisaged the institution as a free-thinker reaction to the traditional dominance of Catholicism in Belgian education. The institutions was avowedly secular and particularly associated with Liberal political movements during the era of pillarisation. The Free University was one of Belgium's major universities, together with the Catholic University of Leuven and the state universities of Liège and Ghent.
The "Linguistic Wars" affected the Free University, which split along language lines in 1969 in the aftermath of unrest at Leuven the previous year. Today two institutions carry the "Free University of Brussels" name: the French-speaking Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB) and the Dutch-speaking Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB). Although separate, both institutions continue to collaborate under the auspices of an umbrella organisation known as Brussels Free Universities.
The Free University of Brussels was founded as the Free University of Belgium (Université libre de Belgique) on 20 November 1834 in the aftermath of Belgium's independence in 1830. Belgium had possessed three State universities at Leuven, Ghent, and Liège under Dutch rule but teaching had been extensively disrupted by the revolution and continued hostilities with the Dutch. As early as 1831, Belgian freemasons of the Les Amis philanthropes lodge had considered founding a new private university. News of the imminent creation of the Catholic University of Mechelen revived the initiative among those with anti-clerical ideas, especially freemasons, liberals, and other freethinkers. Pierre-Théodore Verhaegen and Auguste Baron led the fundraising for the new institution from April 1834. It was officially founded on 20 November 1834 in the former Palace of Charles of Lorraine in Brussels with the help of the mayor Nicolas-Jean Rouppe. The date of its establishment is commemorated annually by students of its successor institutions as "St V".
The motivating principle behind the new institution was "free inquiry" (libre examen) which denoted freethinking ideas inherited from the European Enlightenment. This hostility to political and religious authority led to hostility from the Catholic Church and Catholic Party politicians, increasingly associated with the Mechelen university's successor, the Catholic University of Leuven founded in 1835. Under the system of pillarisation, the Free University became one of the principle institutions in the Liberal "pillar". It was renamed the Free University of Brussels in 1842. In 1858, the Catholic Church established the Saint-Louis Institute in the same city which subsequently expanded into a university in its own right.
The Free University was initially funded by private subscriptions from Liberal and freemasonic groups and encountered financial difficulties because of the lack of state subsidy. However, it grew significantly over following decades. In 1842, it moved to the Palais Granvelle. It expanded the number of subjects taught and, in 1880, became one of the first institutions in Belgium to allow female students to study in some faculties. In 1893, it received large grants from Ernest and Alfred Solvay and Raoul Warocqué to open new faculties in the city. The Solvay School of Commerce was founded in 1904.
In 1900, the school's football team won the bronze medal at the Summer Olympics. After Racing Club de Bruxelles declined to participate, a student selection with players from the University was sent by the Federation. The team was enforced with a few non-students.
A disagreement over an invite to the anarchist philosopher Élisée Reclus to speak at the university in 1893 led to some of the liberal and socialist faculty splitting away from the Free University to form the New University of Brussels (Université nouvelle de Bruxelles) in 1894. The institution failed to displace the Free University, however, and closed definitively in 1919.
The German occupation during World War I led to the suspension of classes for four years in 1914-1918. In the aftermath of the war, the university moved its principle activities to Solbosch in Brussels' southern suburbs and a purpose-built university campus was created, funded by the Belgian American Educational Foundation. During World War II, the Free University was again closed by the German occupiers in November 1941. Students from the university were involved in the Belgian Resistance, establishing Groupe G which focused on sabotage.
In Belgium, French was traditionally spoken by the wealthy classes as well as in law and academia. Its dominance was increasingly challenged during the 19th century by the Flemish Movement which sought equality for Dutch. Initially, all classes at the Free University were taught in French. Some courses were taught in both languages after 1935, but it was only in 1963 that all faculties offered classes in French and Dutch. Tensions between French- and Dutch-speaking students came to a head in 1968 when the Catholic University of Leuven split along linguistic lines, becoming the first of several national institutions to do so.
On 1 October 1969, the Free University was also split into two successor institutions: the French-speaking Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB) and the Dutch-speaking Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB). The scission was made official by the law of 28 May 1970 which created ULB and VUB as distinct legal entities. ULB retained much of the existing university infrastructure, while VUB began construction of a new campus nearby.