Money talks

Blog: Dorsman dives into university history

Senaatszaal in het Academiegebouw van de Universiteit Utrecht, 1869. Bron: Het Utrechts Archief
Senaatszaal in the Academy Building of Utrecht University, 1869. Source: Het Utrechts Archief

In the past year, the university-level collective labour agreements were revised and all staff members have received raises, some more than others. How were salaries arranged in the past? That turns out to be a complicated question, especially in the first centuries of the university’s existence.

Money for wine and gowns

The university of Utrecht was a city university in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This made its growth and prosperity in part dependent on the state of the city finances. And these were in turn partially based on the proceeds from assets seized from the Catholic Church during the transition to Calvinism in 1580. The agreement was that these funds would be used ad pios usus: for useful and pious goals. And apparently, the university was such a useful destination.

Daniël Berckringer (1598-1667) en Johannes Leusden (1624-1699)
Daniël Berckringer (1598-1667) and Johannes Leusden (1624-1699)

An example of this is that the proceeds from the former Abraham Dole Monastery and the Mary Magdalene convents, were used to pay the salaries of Professors Johannes Leusden and Daniël Berckringer, respectively 800 and 1000 guilders. Their reimbursement of expenses was funded from that source too. It consisted of wine money and gown money. That got them 160 guilders combined. But the groundskeeper of the astronomy tower at the Singel at the Smeestraat (20 guilders) and the horticulturist of the Hortus Academicus (24 guilders) were paid from this too. By the way, the Beadle was paid from another fund as well: 300 guilders, including wine money and gown money.

Negotiating paid off in the eighteenth century, too

Considering the difference in salaries between Leusden and Berckringer, there seemed to be ranks and social positions among the professors. And their salaries were up for negotiation too. If a professor in Utrecht were to be asked by Leiden University to work there, for example, he would often use that to get a raise or a bonus for staying in Utrecht. This got the theologian Bonnet a raise of 500 guilders per year in 1764, although he was required to ‘not disclose to anyone’ that he received this gesture. In other words, keep his mouth shut about it.

Coaxing professors from other universities with perks

But there was more. Popular professors at other universities could be persuaded to switch with all kinds of special promises. In that regard, the university company looks like professional soccer. Bigger and more renowned universities like those of Leiden and Utrecht tried to coax talents at other universities with all kinds of perks. Such as the University of Harderwijk, which was more in the national league of university ranks.

These additional reimbursements could add up high enough to be hidden salaries in their own right. But professors were required to promise in return that if they were to leave for another university after all, they would refund a part of that money – a rule that was later abolished as it did not make Utrecht a popular employer.

Students had to pay the professor before the summer vacation

So how much a professor really made is difficult to find out. Salary, moving costs, wine money, and gown money were not the only sources of income. Professors had to give so-called public classes which were accessible to everyone, including non-students. But when it came to smaller, not generally accessible classes, students paid their tuition fees directly to the professor. This could add up to thirty guilders per year.

Nederlandse rijksdaalder uit 1620
Dutch rijksdaalder from 1620

But this revenue model did come with an occupational risk. Payment was due after class, ‘before the big vacation’, and not all students actually paid. This was balanced with other sources of income, such as additional compensation for a year of rectorship or holding public speeches for PhD defences.

How much a Beadle could make in perks is unknown, but the salary of 300 guilders was not much to live off of. Especially if you consider that the level of subsistence around 1650 was approximately 200 guilders and the wage of an uneducated labourer was 240 guilders.

No rabbit as a year-end bonus

Although professors’ salaries were far above those amounts, there were continuous complaints. It sometimes looks as if they were trying to make a quick buck out of everything, but whether or not they were serious money grabbers is difficult to determine. They also paid for their own books and taught classes at home, which also required all kinds of provisions to be made. They were not poor in any case, even though Utrecht did not give them a rabbit for Christmas like they did in Leiden.

Dorsman dives into university history

Out of the thousands of people who study and work at Utrecht University, fewer and fewer know anything about the history of this institution. We can do better than that. Leen Dorsman was a professor of University History until 1 August 2022. Each month on, he describes something from the university’s long history that you would want to know or should know.