Sorbonne heals wounds of 1968

October 13, 1995

The Sorbonne deserves its prestige and reputation but the ancient university may have to undergo profound changes to face the future, according to France's National Evaluation Committee.

The committee's report on Paris I Pantheon-Sorbonne University - its 92nd institution survey - makes it one of the last but clearly by no means the least of France's universities to be scrutinised.

It summarises the Sorbonne's present situation as "the result of centuries of history confronted by an abrupt rift in 1968". After the Sorbonne-centred student revolt of May 1968, higher education in Paris was broken up into a series of multi-site separate universities.

Today, Paris I University has some 40,000 students (a tenth of the greater Paris intake) and more than 900 teaching staff scattered over no fewer than 19 sites. Its tradition, says the report, is one of the individualism of its academics and the autonomy of the different disciplines.

The report focuses on three strengths - its ability to draw top-ranking academics and gifted postgraduates and the intellectual environment afforded by its Latin quarter location, specialised libraries, research seminars and stream of prestigious visiting academics.

Paris I is able to attract top academics at the peak of their careers. Transfer from another institution rather than promotion through the ranks is the norm. This trend is "strong enough to allow Paris I to pick and choose".

With more than 900 teaching academics and 300 researchers, the university has one of the largest staffs in France.

But the university also has its weaknesses, such as poor student- staff ratios. The ratio has moved from 47:1 in 1988 to 40:1.

Paris I president Yves Jegouzo says in his contribution that overcrowding is severe, with five students competing for each square metre of library space. Looking to the future, the report asks whether "two of its current strengths", the "gigantic" size of Paris I and its fragmented structure are not "potential sources of weakness".

Its size "reinforces individualism and makes efficient use of resources harder at a time when collective efforts are increasingly necessary to achieve excellence and when optimum use of resources has become imperative".

The report recommends that the university will not be able to "elude the issue of size and the possible, even probable contradiction between expansion and quality".

It calls for a "major effort at rethinking internal organisation" which currently features "strong centralisation of administration and equally strong decentralisation of pedagogical responsibilities".

The report strongly approves the regrouping of central Paris universities which, it says, "could represent a possibly unparalleled potential".Since the report was written, eight inner Paris universities are setting up the "Universities of Paris", an association which will be used to pool resources and coordinate dealings with the education authorities.

"The wounds born of the 1969 division have now healed and co-operation has become possible", noted M. Jegouzo. He described the Latin Quarter as "undoubtedly the biggest campus in the world and the one where (as opposed to the Anglo-Saxon model of university towns) the integration of town and university has been most successful".

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