When in the autumn of 1914 Belgium was invaded and occupied by the German army, it faced a severe economical crisis due to reduced possibilities of importing food products. This led to food shortages and in some places even to famine. In some large cities committees were set up to aid the needy. However it was soon realized that a more global action was necessary. Two eminent personalities, Herbert Hoover, an American engineer and businessman living in London, and Emile Francqui, a high-level Belgian banker, took the initiative to fight vigorously the food-shortage problem. Following difficult negotiations with both the occupying and the allied forces, Hoover and Francqui set up two aid organizations. In October 1914 Hoover created the Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB) and Francqui founded the National Committee for Help and Food. The two initiators established an impressive network of donors and aid organizations to organize the food supply to the Belgian people.
In 1916 the food supply returned to normal, and a surplus even began to accumulate. At the same time, Francqui, encouraged by several Belgian university professors, set up a University Foundation. It was his conviction that increased scientific activity at Belgian universities was essential and that scientists should receive better pay to allow them to devote themselves solely to teaching and research. Moreover Francqui wished to improve the opportunities for cultural development of the young university students.
After the war the food surpluses were put on public sale. The question arose regarding the end for which the collected funds should be used. On August 28, 1919, Herbert Hoover proposed to Emile Francqui, President of the National Committee for Help and Food, and to Léon Delacroix, Prime Minister, to use the funds, roughly 150 million Belgian francs, to support university education. The authorities decided to give twenty million to each of the four universities and to use fifty-five million to establish the University Foundation. The law of July 6, 1920, and the Royal Decree of August 31 of the same year officially launched the University Foundation. The remaining funds were used to set up the Belgian American Educational Foundation, created by Herbert Hoover (in the state of Delaware) on January 16, 1920. Since that year, these sister institutions have remained active with their own complementary objectives.
Emile Francqui accepted the presidency of the University Foundation. Under his leadership the institution carried out the following programmes:
- providing grants and study loans to students from less privileged families;
- helping university research centres and laboratories attract young researchers;
- stimulating contacts and collaboration between the different Belgian research institutions by supporting scientific publications;
- organizing a "Club Universitaire" as a meeting place for Belgian and foreign academics.
A number of developments took place in and around the activities of the University Foundation during the decades following its creation:
- On October 1, 1927, in a speech at Cockerill in Seraing, King Albert I strongly emphasized the importance of scientific research to the economic development of the country. He repeated his appeal on November 26, 1927, in a speech to the Academy. This led to the creation within the University Foundation of the National Fund for Scientific Research on June 2, 1928. The principal purpose of this Fund is to finance research at Belgian universities. The National Fund started with assets of 110 million Belgian francs from private funds and a complementary donation from the Belgian government.
- The National Fund for Scientific Research has supported a great number of major research projects, some of which have had a significant international impact. Its support of Professor Picard’s 1931 atmospheric balloon experiment to measure and analyse cosmic radiation contributed in large part to the international recognition of the work of Belgian scientists.
- In 1932 the Francqui Foundation was created with the aim of promoting academic research and education in Belgium. This Foundation finances high-level courses at Belgian universities taught by visiting Belgian or foreign specialists and stimulates national and international contacts and collaboration. The Francqui Foundation contributes to the recognition of excellence in research by awarding a prestigious yearly prize.
Francqui passed away in 1935. After his death, the three sister institutions (University Foundation, National Fund for Scientific Research, and Francqui Foundation) were led by Jean Willems. Under Willems’s excellent direction the institutions flourished remarkably. The University Foundation emphasized the international character of research and established contacts between Belgian researchers and famous foreign scientists. Albert Einstein, the Duke de Broglie, Marie Curie, and Paul Langevin, among many others, were guests of the Foundation.
The Foundation also contributed to the creation of various scientific institutes, such as
The Hoover Foundation for the development of the University of Brussels,
The Hoover Foundation for the development of the University of Louvain,
The National Foundation for cancer research,
The Price Léopold Institute for tropical medicine,
The National Institute of agronomic studies in the Belgian Congo,
The National Institute for national parks in the Belgian Congo,
The Institute for research in Central Africa,
Belgian Youth abroad,
The Foundation Biermans-Lapôtre.
After the Second World War a serious devaluation of its assets considerably reduced the financial means of the University Foundation. Thanks to the initiative of Prime Minister Gaston Eyskens, the Belgian government allocated a grant of 100 million Belgian francs to the University Foundation to overcome the difficulties. Jean Willems died on July 31, 1970, having led the three sister institutions since 1935. At that time it was decided that the three institutions should have independent direction to fulfil their individual objectives.
From 1970 to 1978 the University Foundation was presided over by the rector of one of the six Belgian universities for a one-year term of office. Because this made long-term policy impossible, the President’s term of office was lengthened in 1978. Prof. Baron Vlerick as President and Prof. Vander Eycken as Executive Director held office from 1979 to 1982. From 1982 to 2001 the offices were held by Baron Gilbert de Landsheere as President and Professor Louis Baeck as Executive Director. Thanks to the effective, professional leadership and financial competence of Professor Louis Baeck and to the collaboration of the staff, the Foundation was revitalized and the Club renovated to fulfil its mission in the best possible way with deference to its historical tradition.
Since 2001 the Presidency has been held by Professor Jacques Willems, and the office of Executive Director has been held by Mr Eric De Keuleneer.
Throughout all the years of its existence, the University Foundation has been characterized by its pluralism in philosophy and its tolerance in matters of language and community, aiming at the advancement of science.