Thinking global, living local: Voices in a globalized world

Death of a Reformer: The man who “modernized” France’s elite university

Written by on . Published in Learning our lesson on , .


Avalable for use under terms of Creative Commons License

Unassuming entrance to Sciences Po, Paris. Photo by peco on Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0


Richard Descoings, the former Director of France’s prestigious Sciences Po found dead in his New York hotel room April 2nd, left few indifferent in his decades-long crusade to reform French education. He was the driver behind the “modernization” of an archaic admissions system, leading to a far bigger, more international and more diverse student body. But he had also faced criticism for excessive reliance on private sponsorships that threaten the institution’s independence and for an almost hyperactive management style which may leave the school directionless after his passing…

Thousands gathered at Paris’ Saint Sulpice church April 12th to pay their final respects to Richard Descoings, affectionately known as Richie to students and heads-of-state alike, director of the Institute of Political Studies in Paris, more commonly known as Sciences Po. Huge banners were strung from the columns of the church’s neoclassical portico showing Richie, hands chest-high, awkwardly gestured, no doubt in the heat of pedagogical fury, and loud speakers carried the emotion-laden service to the late-comers and curious tourists amassed outside.

The death of the man Le Monde called “the most important figure in education of the past decade” also attracted headlines around the world and personal words of condolence from the Secretary General of the United Nations and the President of the United States, to name a few. To many not familiar with his story, this outpouring of emotion and media attention may seem strange for a single man, but his life and management of one small school has been central to almost two decades of education reform in France.

The story of this small French school, inconspicuously tucked away in Paris’s VIIth arrondissement, and its larger-than-life director, has attracted so much attention because it embodies, in such a unique and compact way, the challenges faced and transformations undertaken by many of the world’s leading institutions of higher education. A particular set of circumstances allowed one man to launch an incredible social experiment in education that holds interesting lessons useful far beyond France. The reforms launched by the charismatic Descoings would not only transform a school forever, but also enthrall the French population in a national dialogue that has changed the face of education in this country forever.

Descoings’ untimely death ultimately presents itself as a difficult moment to fully assess his tenure as Director, as the social niceties demanded of us at such a time can lead us to gloss over certain subjects that deserve an objective evaluation. His reforms were far-reaching and revolutionary, but these reforms and his management style were not without their flaws.

A messianic mission: To create the nation’s elite

Perhaps somewhat prescient of its future Director’s mission, the school was founded in 1872 in the aftermath of France’s dramatic defeat in the Franco-Prussian war in opposition to Paris’ Law School, which trained much of the country’s bureaucratic elite. Emile Boutmy, the school’s founding father, wanted to breathe life into what he saw as a sclerotic elite that had led the country to defeat. Ironically, it is the same thing that Descoings sought to do as he took the reins of the institution in 1996.

From a force for change, the school began to take on many of the characteristics that its founders sought to challenge. For much of its history, the student body of Sciences Po has been drawn from a handful of prestigious lycées, or high schools, through a rigorous and archaic system of exams. Unsurprisingly, the socioeconomic and ethnic makeup of the student body was far from the relative diversity that sets it apart today.

For Descoings, diversifying and democratizing the student body, and somewhat ironically, by extension, the national elite, is essential for the health of a nation and its future. He did not think this was at odds with the expectation of impartial meritocracy that citizens expect from their institutions of higher education.

It was the school’s antiquated system of selection and recruitment, Descoings believed, that was keeping so much of France’s future potential out and the student body dangerously closed-off and introspective, the antithesis of true meritocracy. Furthermore, the system discriminated against very smart people, teeming with potential, because they did not have the social, cultural and economic “capital” necessary to navigate and succeed in the archaic recruitment process that placed less emphasis on the individual and more on how much they knew about 17th century French literature.

In a 2010 interview with the New York Times, Descoings said that the students that pass the classic entrance exams are “extremely smart and clever, but the question is: Are you creative? Are you willing to put yourself at risk? Lead a battle?” These moves have slowly shifted the admissions policy closer to what you see in the United States, with more emphasis being placed on individual candidates, motivations and originality.

Descoings’ signature reform, known as the Conventions Education Prioritaire (CEP), has recruited over 850 students over eleven years. Essentially an affirmative action program, it sought to partner with schools in some of France’s least favored neighborhoods bringing awareness of the opportunities available, opening up new channels for admission that relied less on the archaic concours (competitive entrance exams) and searching for talent where few had trod before. In this same vein, reforms have also been passed establishing progressive tuition based on household income and reforming the gauntlet of tests to which aspiring students are subjected, most notably getting rid of the famous general culture exam that posed such esoteric questions as “who has the right to tell me ‘you must’?”.

Meritocracy: A French exception

The French traditionally have a dogmatic approach to meritocracy that is at odds with the idea of “extenuating circumstances” that lay at the center of affirmative action policies. For many, meritocracy, which finds its roots in France with Napoleon’s attempt to replace the old aristocracy with a noblesse méritocatique, it is more than a simple policy, it is an ideology that underpins the entire political system.

Like the subtle differences between secularism and the French variant, laïcité, which baffles so many foreign observers, distinguishing the nuanced differences that set apart the French conception of meritocracy is essential to understanding the vehement criticism Descoings has unleashed. Opponents see it as a politically-motivated “fad” and argue that it risks undermining the quality of the entire governing apparatus of the country. The famous concours are an age-old right of passage for access not just to France’s elite schools, but also the country’s civil service.

Descoings’ affirmative action program challenged the French to rethink their conception of meritocracy, a value that is fundamental to higher education. It not only sparked important debates within the institution’s faculty and student body, but also a nationwide dialogue much in the way America’s dramatic forced integration of its public schools under the watch of federal troops would become a symbolic stepping stone in a nation’s path to racial reckoning.

Through his highly publicized reforms and leveraging the prestigious reputation of the school, Descoings was able to shatter taboos and bring a focus on the more general problem of France’s two-tiered education system that consists of struggling, underfunded public universities and a small number of prestigious, highly-selective elite institutions, or grandes écoles, that tend to ostracize students from less-favored backgrounds. Today, these reforms are widely touted as a model for expanding educational opportunity and diversifying the elite.

Broader changes: A bigger, more international school

Descoings’ affirmative action reforms may have drawn the most media attention and, equally, criticism, but, not to gloss over their symbolic importance for French society, it was a deeper shift in the school’s orientation that led to the most profound changes.

Before Descoings ascended to the Directorship of the institution, the school was an inwardly-focused, elitist institution that prepared students for a life in the highest ranks of France’s public service through a strict regimen of courses taught by the country’s leading practitioners. Using the school’s special status and autonomy, Descoings revolutionized the pedagogical program, transforming it from a small, specialized school into an academic and research oriented institution able to compete with international peers such as Columbia University and the London School of Economics.

In addition to changes in the substance and scope of the institutions educational offerings, the size of the student body and faculty has been significantly enlarged and has opened itself to the world. Much more so than the school’s affirmative action efforts, this growth, coupled with the enlarged scope of career paths, has led to a massive democratization and diversification of the establishment. For Descoings, a school could not offer future leaders the skills to function in the 21st century if they were not faced with the competition and diversity of ideas that comes with internationalization.

During his tenure, the school more than doubled its size to around 10,000 students. International students now represent roughly 40% of the student body and 20% of students receive financial aid, a percentage far superior to its peer institutions. Perhaps more telling of the school’s fundamental transformation, 70% of graduates go on to careers in the private sector.

Quality vs. quantity?

Descoings, a 21st century renaissance man, was an intellectual at heart. While many of his obituaries may have been content with enumerating his impressive array of headline-friendly reforms, we would not be fully respectful of what he believed in if we allowed his death to cloud our assessment of his tenure. His management style, reforms and broader transformations may now be touted as a model to emulate; yet, this process was not without its problems.

The most important lesson institutions can take away from Sciences Po’s experience is a need for strategic vision. Not even the world’s oldest, most successful institutions have the luxury of being complacent about where they are heading and what their mission is. Descoings was successful because he had a vision and he sold it: to students, alumni, faculty, media and policy makers. While, as Director, he did benefit from Sciences Po’s peculiar status that gives it more autonomy than most schools, he was also able to enlarge his margin of maneuver by articulating a coherent vision and incorporating a diverse array of stakeholders into that vision.

Secondly, Descoings brought energetic leadership to back up the vision he set out for the school. He exercised his influence in numerous areas of the public and private sphere, garnering support from political and business leaders that was invaluable for the school’s success. In the end, the school could have not made the great leap it did without him, but, ironically, without him the school faces massive obstacles in trying to regain momentum and clean up a host of problems he left in his wake.

Just as has been the case for many education systems worldwide, the democratization of secondary schools and subsequently institutions of higher education has opened up authorities to criticisms of lowering expectations and diluting quality. Sciences Po has faced huge obstacles, as have many institutions worldwide, maintaining quality education under conditions of rapid growth with overcrowded classes and administrative services stretched thin.

Evidence from Sciences Po suggests however that the problems are, above all, administrative and logistical and that neither the CEP affirmative action policy nor the school’s growth has had a negative effect on employment prospects for graduates, the easiest proxy for the quality of a degree.

Employment numbers are hard to compare over the long run, but in recent years the percentage of graduates obtaining a coveted indefinite work contract has steadily risen (currently over 50% not counting civil servants or students continuing other degrees). A recent study conducted by Vincent Tiberj also found that students having gone through the affirmative action program even more likely to succeed in their careers after finishing their studies with 63% of CEP students graduating between 2006-2011 having stable employment versus the general average of 56% and just as likely to pursue additional degrees (27% for both). CEP students also find jobs faster and are more likely to pursue careers in the private sector (80% versus 66% respectively) and more likely to become entrepreneurs (8% versus 6% respectively).

The highly publicized reforms he launched were critical to sparking national debate, but the implementation could often be heavy handed and left a large part of the student body unsatisfied. Although widely supported, there is still significant opposition to the Descoings model that cannot be ignored and has important points. In a recent editorial in the center-right Le Figaro newspaper, Chantal Delsol and Jean-Francois Mattei argue that “mediocrity becomes a model when the obsession with equality and the dread of discrimination run out of control”.

A competing philosophy, championed by leaders at other prestigious institutions in France, such as the elite engineering school Polytechnique, have, instead of altering the admissions process, focused on identifying students with potential, that may struggle with the classic admissions exams, and provide them with intense preparatory classes to “fill in the gaps” in their education. For many, diversity is a noble enough cause, but one must not “lower standards” to achieve it.

Some schools also feel as if they are being made the scapegoat for the lack of diversity in France’s elite schools, arguing that the inequalities that create this situation are rooted in France’s education system, long before students sit the prestigious concours.

Fundraising à l’américaine

Next, the school has also had to face the omnipresent problem of financing growth as public funds become scarcer every year. The school occupies a unique position in French higher education at the intersection of the public and private spheres. Administrators are having to turn more and more to soliciting private funding, le fundraising à l’américaine, through the development of an alumni network and partnerships with the private sector.

Descoings was gifted at translating media attention into donations, although he did this at the cost of failing to focus on more sustainable channels of alternative finance. A vocal minority also worries about the independence of the school with private funding expected to soon represent over 50% of the school’s budget. Finally, Descoings’s political clout and Sciences Po’s prestige have until now guaranteed it a disproportionate amount of public funding, although this is set to change with recent accusations of gross mismanagement of funds.

Under Descoings’s tenure, as a recent report from the Cour des Comptes, the French public auditor, reveals there have been serious money management problems at the school with administrators and professors having charged astronomical phone bills and first class flights to the school. Mediapart, a left-leaning investigative internet magazine, also charged in a 2009 article that the lack of proper accounting norms allowed Descoings to autocratically manage the school as he saw fit, doling out punishments, as well as financial rewards and perks to keep staff and senior administrators in line.

Can reforms survive their omnipresent maker’s passing?

In the end, Descoings’ most important flaw was his omnipresence that could sometimes border on the hyperactive. So much of the institutions dynamism emanated from one single person. Furthermore, much of the school’s political clout resided in Descoings’ personal contacts with policymakers and business leaders that perished with him. This has magnified the feeling of loss as students and faculty are left wondering how they can institutionalize the energy and momentum that Descoings brought to Sciences Po. A large part of why his death was so personal was that there was a very palpable sense among many students that they would not be there if it were not for this man and that he embodied the school’s transformation.

Inevitably, with such an enigmatic man and the peculiar set of circumstances that allowed him to enact his revolution, it is hard to distill a black and white picture of the aspects to emulate and the lessons of caution. Descoings, as a figure in education reform, brilliantly used his vision for the school to enact change both within the school and French society. In what have largely been seen as successful reforms, he has shattered taboos and forced many to rethink traditional ideas of meritocracy. He has also fundamentally transformed the size and scope of the school, this growth has presented serious pragmatic problems, but as evidence shows, does not seem to have undermined the quality of education. Finally, without a person like Descoings, it is not certain the same transformations could have been put in place, yet his omnipresence and very personal, edging on autocratic, management has left the school severely handicapped, picking up the pieces after his death. In the end, one of his most important attributes was a double-edged sword.

For full disclosure, the author is a student at Sciences Po and would not be there if it weren’t for Richie.

Stephen Hartka Twitter: @shartkaStephen

Stephen Hartka is currently a graduate student at Sciences Po Paris where he is pursuing a degree in International Public Management. He graduated from the University of Virginia in 2010, majoring in Foreign Affairs and French. Thematic interests include European foreign policy, particularly transatlantic relations. Aside from his academic experience, he has also worked as a consultant, specialising in the evaluation of European public policies and programmes and enjoys writing on EU affairs.