Climbing Mount Unenviable

May 14, 1999

The presidency of a French university carries few rewards. Ivar Ekeland writes to a prospective candidate

My dear X, LESS THAN The president of our university is nearing the end of his term and you have asked me whether you should run for election. This is not a question to be answered lightly, and I have decided to put my thoughts in writing.

By French law, university presidents are elected for a five-year term. During those years you will enjoy a position unique in French administration: a civil servant, yet not answerable to hierarchy. Your authority will stem from your election, which requires an absolute majority of the university council, composed of elected faculty representatives, students and staff, convened for the sole purpose of electing the president.

You will have to answer to university councils and your budget has to be approved by a two-thirds majority. But, for five years, you will be your own master. This is very rare within the French administrative system, rife as it is with fonctionnaires d'autorite - civil servants who exercise a lot of autonomy but in the name of their minister. A university president, on the other hand, lays down policy and is not answerable to the minister. He or she negotiates, but does not take orders.

Many think of the presidency as an administrative position. It is not, it is a political one, as you will quickly find out. First, you will experience the joys of campaigning. Even if you run unopposed, election is far from assured, because an absolute majority is required. You will meet the electors, and discover how widely different their interests are, as well as how different they are from the colleagues you are used to.

Then, you will discover that you need simultaneously to be a parliamentary leader (to keep a majority in the university councils), a high civil servant (all the administrative staff at the university are your subordinates), and an entrepreneur (you are managing an organisation of 1,000 people, serving 10,000, in a volatile environment).

You will decide that you cannot do it alone. Your first real challenge will be to form a team. You cannot hire people for that purpose, as any private institution would do, so you will have to resort to overworked faculty who will add to their research and teaching duties some part of your burden, for the real pleasure of being part of the show and the dubious honour of being called a vice-president.

You will be left with quantities of matter that you have to do yourself: negotiating with the central administration for the budget, new buildings, more positions, new curricula; establishing links with the business community and with local politicians in the hope that private money or support from the city will complement your pittance from government; forcing the university to take a hard look at itself and building a policy out of the perceived strengths and weaknesses.

There will be no real guidance for you: your own footsteps will make the road as you go. What are the objectives to be achieved? What are the benchmarks of good performance? The prevailing rhetoric is one of equality, not of excellence. All universities are supposed to be equal, all students who leave high school with the baccalaureat are free to enter any university they choose in any field of study they favour.

All faculty and staff are civil servants, so that their career and salaries are handled by national boards: there is no incentive left for you to attract better people or reward distinguished performance. It may be that such a system gives every student the same chances of success, but it certainly does not drive individual universities to better performance, either in teaching or in research. The role of the president is to supply this drive.

An enterprising university could make a lot of difference in experimenting with and popularising new formulas for professional education. Contact with industry has traditionally been a weak point of French higher education: this is changing as business leaders feel the need for qualified personnel and find universities are able to provide it. There are also provisions in the law that have never been used, such as one that enables universities to set up private companies to capitalise on the technical expertise in their laboratories and research centre.

You will balance all this against the long days, the running from one pressing meeting to another, everything urgent, requiring an immediate decision. You will chair committees for hours on end, listening to speaker after speaker develop arguments you have already heard 100 times. You will have to bear the responsibility and the stress, to take the blame and forgo the credit. You will also have to think of what comes after your term ends. You will resume your professorship, but no one will have waited for you. Your former field of research will have made progress during those five years, and it is not even clear that you will want to catch up. You will have become another person, your scientific interests will have tremendously widened, and you may not want to narrow yourself back to your former self.

On the other hand, you will find that your new expertise is in limited demand outside universities. If you are lucky, you will be able to start afresh in a new area of research, more suited to your interests, try to become a consultant with the ministry of education, or even start an administrative career within the ministry.

As the demands of the job become more apparent, fewer people are willing to run. In many elections, there is one candidate only. The material rewards are practically non-existent, so it is really a case of wanting to do it. It is like climbing Everest: if you do it, it is because it is there, and you only do it once.

Ivar Ekeland lectures at the CEREMADE et Institut de Finance, Universite Paris-Dauphine.

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