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Americas

France struggles with legacy of iconoclastic academic

Text by Joseph BAMAT

Latest update : 2012-04-04

The political and academic world in France has been rocked by news of the death of Richard Descoings, the director of Sciences Po University, who won both fans and detractors with his maverick agenda.

France's political and academic worlds were reeling on Wednesday after news that Richard Descoings, the director of one of France's most prestigious educational institutions, was found dead in a New York City hotel room.

Best known as the iconoclastic director of Sciences Po University, the elite institution known for preparing France's brightest for careers in politics and foreign service, Descoings was also a high-ranking bureaucrat with close ties to power.

The Legion of Honour-decorated academic was also a controversial figure accustomed to media attention. His drive to open Sciences Po up to underprivileged youth and move the school toward a brand-oriented model won him both loyal supporters and vehement detractors.

From classroom to the ministry

A Sciences Po graduate, Descoings returned to his alma mater in the mid-1980s as a law professor and became the school's deputy director in 1989. He ascended to the institution's governing board and in 1996 took over as director –a post he would keep for 16 years before his sudden and mysterious death in New York.

More importantly, Descoings built a parallel career in the hallways of French government. From the age of 30 he worked for France's Council of State, a body that, among other duties, is charged with providing legal advice to the president and cabinet ministers.

He shot up the bureaucratic ladder, becoming an advisor to budget and education ministers in the 1990s. While Descoings was pegged as being close to the Socialist Party, he was later considered for the education minister's post during the tenure of conservative president Nicolas Sarkozy.

“He did not come from the academic world,” said Mathew Fraser, a professor at Sciences Po and an alumnus of the school. “He used to say he was the pure product of the elitist education he combatted.”

He was in the United States this week to represent France in a United Nations-sponsored conference that brought together the presidents of the world's top 50 universities.

Pioneer of affirmative action

Sciences Po students and faculty gathered at their campus on Tuesday night to honour the admired educator. “We arrived around 2:30am and stayed all night,” Camille Bonnard, a first-year student told France 24. “It was moving.”

Descoings will be best remembered for keeping things moving at Sciences Po. And while the political and world rushed to lay praise on the school’s fallen leader Wednesday, his reform agenda was still under fire.

“He was a flamboyant public servant who broke down conventions,” said Waddick Doyle, the chair of global communications at the American University in Paris (AUP). “But he was also a contested reformer.”

“In a way, he was pioneer of affirmative action in France. He revolutionized the French universities and was among the first to introduce the principle of the corporate university. He was a reformer - that made him enemies,” said Christian Stoffaes, a retired Sciences Po professor.

While he raised eyebrows by doubling the size of his school and by raising tuition for students based on parental income, he completely broke ranks in 2001 by opening the elite school up to pupils from underprivileged neighbourhoods.

He scrapped a “general culture” entrance exam he deemed “discriminatory” and pushed a policy of affirmative action that favoured the enrolment of top students –usually from African and Arab families– from some of France’s poorest communities.

Descoings also pushed to give his school wider recognition outside of France. This was partly accomplished by filling out its classrooms with international students, but also by remodelling Sciences Po after American institutional models. He distanced the school from an emphasis on research, expanding the curriculum and faculty list in order to prepare students for careers in both the public and private sectors. Descoings also brokered partnerships with universities outside of France -notably Columbia University in New York City.

Most recently, and much to his chagrin, Descoings was in the media spotlight over his Sciences Po salary - a whopping 27,000 euros per month. The sum is on par with the earnings of the highest-paid university presidents in the United States, but is considered extravagant by French standards.

The Republican promise

Speaking on France Info radio, Socialist Party chief Martine Aubry said Descoings' greatest victories had been introducing economically disadvantaged youths to Sciences Po and boosting the number of students on scholarship.  She said he had "restored the Republican promise."

However, while he succeeded in establishing profound and lasting changes at his own school, Descoings' reform agenda has been largely rejected by the rest of French academia. “French Society is extraordinarily rigid and its university system remains elitist,” Sciences Po’s Fraser regretted. “Many were not in favour [of reforms] and he was often alone.”

For AUP’s Doyle, it is not clear whether Descoing’s reforms have made French education more egalitarian. “It’s easy to say he democratised education. He introduced paying tuition and definitely moved the system toward a more American model. Those who champion free education would not agree.”

It remains to be seen whether the transformations Descoings championed will spread throughout the French educational system, or simply remain confined to the halls of Sciences Po. He nevertheless succeeded in raising questions that will be debated long after his death.

 

 

Date created : 2012-04-04

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