The stunning and untimely death of Richard Descoings, director of Sciences Po Paris, in his New York hotel room has been a major story here the past two days. The many tributes (e.g. here) have called him a visionary for the reforms he brought to Sciences Po—an institution I know well (and which I have been frequenting regularly for the past two decades)—and who had more influence than many government ministers. He was a dominant personality in French higher education over the past decade and his reforms were major indeed. Two of them in particular.
The first was his unilateral decision in 2001 to implement an affirmative action scheme à la française to increase social class diversity at Sciences Po. Descoings had observed that Sciences Po, where students from the Auteuil-Neuilly-Passy triangle had always predominated, had become even more elitist in its social class composition since the 1970s. As Sciences Po has been the training school of the French ruling elite since the late 19th century—the majority of presidents and prime ministers of the Fifth Republic went there—, Descoings decided that it was simply not acceptable to have a sociological make up so at variance with that of French society—and where children of immigrants from the Maghreb and black Africa were few in number. American-style affirmative action—where race/ethnicity is explicitly taken into account—being legally, politically, and culturally impossible in France, Descoings came up with the idea to sign contracts with lycées in the banlieues, where the school principals would designate their top students and whom they thought would be good for Sciences Po, and who would be admitted directly and without having to take the redoubtable concours (entrance exam). When Descoings announced the scheme there was an outcry among the students—of both the right and left—, who thought it hugely unfair that anyone should be admitted to the school without passing the concours—a not unreasonable reaction on their part—and that the students admitted under the scheme would likely fail in any case, not fit in, be stigmatized and ostracized, and so on (there were protest tables, petitions, and banners in the main building at the time). The Sciences Po students, invoking the French republican ethos, argued that the concours was open to all, that admission to the school was based solely on merit, and that the banlieue kids should simply go through the process like everyone else. The response to this was that most of the immigrant-origin banlieue high school seniors who were proposed for admission had either never heard of Sciences Po before or didn’t consider it, as it was another world—most of the banlieue kids had probably never even ventured into the Saint-Germain-des-Prés/Sevrès-Babylone area—and not for them, and that the level of culture générale needed to pass the concours was not only something learned in school but also acquired from having been raised in a cultivated, educated family and social milieu. Descoings ignored the outcry and held to his scheme. After the first students admitted under the scheme graduated, there were articles in Le Monde and elsewhere (around 2006) assessing how it had worked. It proved to be a huge success. The academic performance of the affirmative action students was not only satisfactory but above the mean and they had no problems integrating with the rest of the student body. [N.B. “affirmative action” is my term here, not the one used in France]. Descoings’ scheme was deemed such a success that contracts were signed with more lycées and with an increasing number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds admitted to the school. For France, this was a first.
Descoings’ other big reform was to impose tuition fees. Until the last decade Sciences Po was all but free (registration fees were a few hundred dollars a year), as with public universities. Sciences Po is not a public university, however, but an elite establishment with a hybrid private-public status (it was entirely private until 1945). Moreover, the career goals of the student body began to change in the 1990s, from preparing to sit the concours for ENA and then accede to the haute fonction publique—which had been Sciences Po’s historic mission—, to going directly into the private sector and making money. With Sciences Po becoming, in effect, a business school—as the gauchiste Le Monde Diplomatique sniffed in an article a dozen years back—, there was no justification whatever for public funds to subsidize it in the way that they had. And the school needed the money to modernize its infrastructure and become a world-class institution. The students howled and whined but Descoings went ahead with his plan, imposing tuition but with the amount based on the income of the student’s parents plus the size of their primary residence. The scale presently ranges from €0 to €9,300 a year (see here). What an interesting approach. Make the Auteuil-Neuilly-Passy kids pay—which they of course can—but less for those from middle and lower class families. Should American universities be so inspired. Descoings’ reform here did indeed bring about the physical modernization of Sciences Po—which I’ve watched happen with my own eyes—and increase its international profile. If one wants to study political science, political economy, political sociology, or area studies with a political focus and on the European continent, there is no better place than Sciences Po Paris.
Descoings also instituted other reforms, such as making Sciences Po a five-year program and straight out of lycée—and without a year preparatory course to sit the concours—and culminating in a Master’s (and with an obligatory year spent studying at a university outside France, many students choosing the US). I’ve never taught a course at Science Po, though friends there have encouraged me to do so over the years. Maybe I will. But one thing apparently hasn’t changed, which is the low salaries of the army of adjuncts who teach there. Plus ça change…
ADDENDUM: Pascal Riché, formerly of Libération, had a lengthy interview with Descoings in 2008 (and in English), on how Europe was losing out in the global competition among universities.