pixel Once upon a time in 1973: NOVA University Lisbon was born on 11 August | Universidade NOVA de Lisboa

Once upon a time in 1973: NOVA University Lisbon was born on 11 August

The expansion of higher education and the creation of more universities in Portugal would be officially announced on August 11th. NOVA University Lisbon was born 50 years ago, a feat that prompted several articles in the press at the time.  


It was during the days of the old regime that the famous educational reform, promoted by the then Minister of Education, José Veiga Simão, took place, while Portuguese universities remained untouched as places of reproduction for the elite. Insisting that any reform must always serve the people – "because a more educated nation will always be a freer one" – the minister began speaking more about the democratization of higher education. 

Viewing himself as the "interpreter of a reform in which the teachers were the main allies," as he told RTP, Veiga Simão had the Basic Law of the Education System approved in July 1973, and the diploma allowing the expansion of higher education was passed the following month. This challenge was embraced by the community, leading to the birth of three new universities in the same year: Aveiro, Minho, and NOVA

During this time, João Fraústo da Silva, a liberal, was the director of the Instituto Superior Técnico, which was experiencing growing unrest since the late 1960s. Strikes, exam boycotts, accusations against the police, and arrests were prevalent. With the murder of student José António Ribeiro dos Santos by a PIDE/DGS agent on October 12, 1972, tensions escalated, and the more reform-minded directors were once again replaced by the more rigid wing of the regime. 

Eventually, Fraústo da Silva ordered the closure of IST and decided to step down. Shortly after, Veiga Simão challenged him to begin working on the creation of a new university in Lisbon. 

NOVA University Lisbon (UNL) was then established by Decree-Law No. 402/73 on August 11, and Fraústo da Silva became its inaugural Rector. He also presided over the Installation Committee, leading the design of the institution's organization. He aimed to establish it in Quinta da Torre, Monte de Caparica, by 1985. 


Around two months after Fraústo da Silva's appointment, the newspaper Diário Popular, in its September 21, edition of 1973, provided a concise biography of the man who would become the first Rector of NOVA University Lisbon. 

"Born in Tomar, Prof. João José Fraústo da Silva graduated in Industrial Chemical Engineering from the Instituto Superior Técnico. He was an assistant to Prof. Herculano de Carvalho [who had served as Director of the Technical Institute and Rector of the University of Lisbon] and a fellow at the Instituto de Alta Cultura, the Nuclear Energy Studies Commission, and later at the University of Oxford – where he earned a doctorate in natural philosophy. Upon returning to Portugal, he authored a new doctoral thesis in chemical engineering at IST, receiving a grade of 19 out of 20. 

In an interview with Diário de Notícias on November 7, 1974, Fraústo da Silva unveiled further details about the university's structure. He announced plans for 12 bachelor's degrees and 27 diplomas, aiming for NOVA to be a significant centre for studying and addressing Portuguese society's issues, particularly in areas where the State's interventionist role should be pronounced. 

He also revealed his aspiration for NOVA University Lisbon to be distinct from traditional universities, where teaching and research often play secondary roles. Instead, he emphasized a focus on serving society, especially the public sector, with teaching as a corollary. 

In a subsequent interview with the weekly newspaper Expresso, Fraústo da Silva dispelled concerns that "administrative bottlenecks" might impede "the launch of NOVA University Lisbon." He announced the commencement of a permanent seminar on Portuguese culture and the upcoming introduction of three postgraduate courses aimed at preparing university teachers, scheduled for the end of December or the beginning of January. 

During the same interview, Fraústo da Silva offered further insights into the rationale behind the university's location on the south bank of the Tagus River. This decision was closely tied to the university's fundamental mission. 

"We aim to serve and project nationally, so it is not suitable for a location that is difficult to reach from any part of the country. We also envision an institution with a vibrant collective life of its own: one that doesn't get lost in the city's chaos or isolates itself in remote, inexpensive areas. Moreover, we seized the opportunity to align our planning with the new extensions in Almada overseen by the Housing Development Fund. It is indeed a unique opportunity – to foster the growth of both the university and the surrounding community simultaneously." 

This interview contained various other intriguing responses. For instance, when asked about the start of construction, the founding rector humorously replied, "(...) I'm glad you're asking when it will begin rather than when it will end! Because practically, it will never truly end." This was all in pursuit of the university's ability to "expand its reach," a development driven by research needs and the influx of students. The interview's title encapsulated its essence: "Fraústo Silva explains that administrative bottlenecks won't prevent the launch of NOVA University Lisbon." 


Slightly over a year following the initial publication in the Government Gazette, the study outlining the five scientific areas for development was finalized in September 1974. These areas encompassed exact and natural sciences, human and social sciences, arts, applied and technological sciences, and medical and paramedical sciences. 

Another year passed, and on November 11, 1975, Manuel Laranjeira assumed the role of the first elected Rector. He completed the new Founding Commission alongside two other members: José-Augusto França and Leopoldo Guimarães. However, this academic year – 1975/76 – was marked by the inauguration of the Computer Engineering degree program in the provisional facilities of the Seminary of Olivais. 

Another year later, in November 1977, the Minister of Education, Mário Sottomayor Cardia, reorganized the university into four organic units: the Faculty of Science and Technology (FCT), the Faculty of Social and Human Sciences (FCSH), the Faculty of Economics (FE), and the Faculty of Medical Sciences (FCM). 

The responsibility of setting up the installation committees for the newly created faculties and determining their respective locations fell to the third Rector, Alfredo de Sousa. Accordingly, the FCT was situated on the Caparica campus, the FCSH on Avenida de Berna, the FE in Campolide (after a temporary stint in Campo Grande), and the FCM in Campo de Santana. 

The Rectory itself found its home in Príncipe Real, Lisbon, at Palace Ribeiro da Cunha, where it remained until 2005 when the newly constructed building on the Campolide campus was inaugurated.