Richard Descoings, who was the director of the Paris Institute of Political Studies, has been described by colleagues as "a tremendously charismatic figure" and has been praised by Nicolas Sarkozy, France's president, for his influence on the country's academy.
As an alumnus of the institution, commonly known as Sciences Po, Mr Descoings was keen to keep it relevant and competitive following his appointment as director in 1996.
Peter Gumbel, director of Sciences Po's Centre for the Americas, said: "Many of his ideas attracted controversy when he first announced them...but he stood his ground, fought his battles and today those ideas are increasingly accepted and copied by other French institutions."
Under Mr Descoings' directorship, Sciences Po was an early adopter of the Bologna Process and introduced a compulsory year abroad for all undergraduates. This, together with a new multilingual curriculum in French, English and other languages, served to open up the institution to foreign students, who today constitute 40 per cent of its student body.
In 2001, he controversially scrapped Sciences Po's entrance examinations for 10 per cent of its intake in order to recruit more students from poor backgrounds.
Etienne Wasmer, executive director of the Interdisciplinary Research Centre for the Evaluation of Public Policies and professor of economics at Sciences Po, said: "I perceived him as somebody suffering somehow from not being an academic, but he was really willing to trust the academics. He also loved students and all his decisions were about improving their lives."
Christian Lequesne, director of the Centre for International Studies and Research (CERI), said: "Richard understood that the problem of higher education in France was not only a question of reforming the structures but also of treating the academics fairly."
Mr Descoings set up Sciences Po campuses in Nancy, Dijon, Poitiers, Menton, Le Havre and Reims, and forged links with its sister institution, the London School of Economics, as part of his mission to internationalise the university.
Howard Davies, professor of practice at Sciences Po and former director of the LSE, said: "We discovered at the LSE that if he committed to something, it happened."
Professor Davies added that he and Mr Descoings "shared a taste for very strong espresso and [mineral water] Badoit, which carried us through many meetings".
Hervé Crès, interim director of Sciences Po, paid tribute to Mr Descoings, saying he "turned a university institution into a vibrant international community".
Mr Descoings died suddenly on 3 April while in New York, and is survived by his wife Nadia.