Most people usually think of universities as being particularly stable, physically speaking. Sure, they grow a bit: if they are really ambitious they add a satellite campus here and there – maybe even set one up overseas. But by and large, the centre of the university itself stays put, right?
Well, not always. There are some interesting exceptions.
In the first place, the idea of a “university” as a physical place where teaching gets done is not a universal one. In many places, a university was a place that offered examinations and degrees while the teaching was done somewhere else, like in colleges. The University of Manitoba started off that way, for instance: individual colleges were scattered around Winnipeg, and U of M just handed out the degrees. UBC and the University of Victoria, famously, started their lives as colleges which prepared people to take McGill degrees; ditto Brandon and McMaster. And all of this was more or less based on an example back in England, where the University of London played the same role right across the Empire (a number of African colleges started life as prep colleges for University of London degrees).
Some universities had to move because of wartime exigencies. After the Japanese invasion of 1937, the majority of Chinese universities – the public ones, anyway – hightailed it to the interior, to Wuhan and then later to Chongking or Yunnan. There, many universities would share campuses and what little bits of laboratories and libraries the universities had managed to bring with them. Peking, Tsinghua and Nanking universities actually merged temporarily to form the South-west Associated University. Similarly, during the Korean War, the main universities in Seoul (Yonsei, Korea, and Seoul National) all left town and headed to the (relative) safety of Busan, only returning to the capital when the war was over. As in China there was a great deal of co-operation between fugitive universities; some observers say the big prestigious Korean universities have never been as willing to accept credits from other schools as they were at the start of the 1950s. And sometimes, fugitive universities never make it home. A number of religious universities in Taiwan for instance (e.g. Soochow University, Fu Jen Catholic University) were originally located in mainland China but left ahead of the Communist take-over in 1949.
Domestic politics can lead to changes as well. In Seoul, the challenge of locating a major campus quite close to the centre of political power was brought home to authorities when students from Seoul National University helped overthrow the Syngman Rhee government in 1960. Rhee’s successor, Park Chung-hee, put a safe distance between students and the regime by relocating the entire campus south of the river the following decade. In Belgium until the 1960s, the Catholic University of Leuven was in tricky situation – a prestigious, historically French institution in an area that was mostly Flemish-speaking. Eventually, being Belgians, they decided that the best course of action was to split the university; basically, the Flemish got the site and the infrastructure while most of the professoriate decamped 20 mile to the south to a greenfield site in a French speaking province. Thank God no one’s suggested that at McGill.
And finally, some universities aren’t where they used to be because, well, they aren’t the same university, even though they may share a name. Visitors to Salerno might want to visit the local university, thinking it has some connection with the ancient medical school there. Unfortunately, that university disappeared about 700 years ago; the modern thing up the hill is an expansion of a teacher training college created during the Second World War.
So, yes, universities on the whole are pretty durable, staid and stable institutions. Doesn’t mean they don’t wander around on occasion.