Sorbonne sores are soothed

August 14, 1998

This has been a year of celebrations. The French have taken to the beaches with happy memories of their World Cup soccer triumph. The educational value of the tournament is something to think about. I can think of no other event that could send people into the streets waving French flags. And after the semi-final against Croatia, where Lilian Thuram scored twice to carry the day, people paraded down the Champs Elysees chanting "Thuram president". Not a real challenge for Jacques Chirac but there must have been a lot of Le Pen supporters in that crowd - and Thuram is very obviously black.

However, many academics would welcome a change in the hope that a new government might get rid of Claude All gre, the minister for education. He arrived in office proclaiming his aim to "cut the fat off the mammoth" - his own ministry - and halved the number of departments. The main result of this has been to blind and deafen the poor animal, which has not been responding for the past six months, while deadlines for everyday business - contracts, grants, certification - come and go unheeded. There was, of course, the grand policy announcement, of rebuilding the whole of higher education around three major degrees - the bachelor's, the master's and the PhD - but since no means nor calendar have been put forward and there is no trust in the capacity of the mammoth to do anything right now, the academic community is wary.

Back to celebrations. A well-heralded one was the 25th anniversary of the universities of Paris - seemingly an outrageously tender age for such an old lady as the Sorbonne to celebrate. Unfortunately, she died unnoticed in 1968. She had already died once, two centuries ago, when the French Revolution seized all the church's worldly goods, shutting down all charitable institutions that depended on them such as schools, hospitals and universities.

The French university is, like most of our institutions, a creation of Napoleon Bonaparte. He built a centralised, authoritarian system that had nothing to do with traditions handed down from the middle ages. This system mellowed through the 19th century, bringing it closer to other European countries, and survived until 1968. The May "events" brought it down, and in the autumn of 1968, Edgar Faure, whom General de Gaulle had given the unenviable position of minister of education, drafted a new law that passed unanimously through parliament, and which has been in effect ever since.

The Sorbonne was blamed for May 1968 and, to prevent it every happening again, the university was sliced into seven, each denoted by a number.

Buildings and faculty were divided between these new creations in a long painful process that left deep scars between the institutions and people concerned. Bear in mind, for instance, that the old Sorbonne building in the Latin Quarter, where the chapel of Cardinal de Richelieu lies, is shared by five universities and the ministry itself. The building belongs to none of these, but to the city of Paris. Imagine what it is like to get the facade cleaned.

Little thought was given to how the new universities would operate. The dividing process appeared to be done on political lines - the events of May 1968 having deeply divided faculty - rather than scientific ones. The bulk of physics, for instance, is divided between two universities (Paris 6 and 7), as is law (Paris 1 and 2), and humanities (Paris 3 and 4). Paris 1 has more than 20 different sites with students, faculty and staff spread around the city. There was no institutional identity or purpose to hold the thing together.

Another celebration, unnoticed but maybe as important, was the fifth anniversary of the Association of Paris Universities. This informal group was founded in 1993 by the university presidents. By then most of the wounds created by the separation had healed, and the universities had managed to develop some kind of identity. All had given themselves a name, and the choice is interesting. While the earlier ones took names of locations, as if trying to assert property rights (Paris 1, for instance, calling itself Panth on-Sorbonne) the later ones were historical figures, supposed to symbolise the university's scientific policy. Paris 6, with a heavy emphasis on hard science, called itself after Pierre and Marie Curie, while Paris 7, which sees itself as multidisciplinary, chose Denis Diderot.

By 1993, it had become evident that, despite 20 years of effort going into higher education nationally, the Paris universities had benefited very little from it. New ones were created around Paris and other areas of the country to keep students from moving to Paris. Francois Fillon, then minister of higher education, declared that higher education was un service de proximite, French bureaucratese best translated as "coming soon to a shop near you".

In spite of all these efforts, students continued to come to Paris, especially for their graduate studies, and its universities had to keep quality going in crowded and extremely unfavourable conditions. Between 1968 and 1993, not a single new building or extension for use for higher education was built in Paris, while the number of students vastly increased. Extra frustration came from the refusal of the city of Paris to have anything to do with its universities, whereas local authorities elsewhere in France were routinely supporting higher education.

The presidents of the eight universities in Paris - no longer seven, because of a newcomer, the University of Paris-Dauphine, created in 1970 in the building abandoned by Nato as they moved headquarters to Brussels - decided collectively to go public with their grievances. In May 1993 they called a press conference, possibly the first time they had been seen together, and started a series of joint visits to the the prime minister, the minister of higher education and to local authorities. As a result, the city changed its attitude. Universities had always been taken for granted, but the idea that the University of Paris-Dauphine, for instance, could move to La Defense - only two miles away but outside the city boundary - for lack of space, forced it to reconsider. It may also be that Jacques Chirac, then mayor of Paris, was already planning his presidential campaign and wanted to show his concern for higher education and research.

Five years later, the association is alive and well. It has fostered goodwill and fellowship among the presidents, who meet monthly. It has been successful in changing the trend, and there are now some major projects for universities inside Paris, the main one being on the east side, by the Seine, where a large site is available close to the new National Library. The city of Paris and the state seemed to have agreed that it will be for a university. But whether it will be a new one or a new location for an old one, such as Paris 6 or Paris 7, which are facing a huge asbestos problem on the old Jussieu campus, is still unclear. All this promises very interesting developments, perhaps even a second rebirth of the Sorbonne. Happy anniversary!

Ivar Ekeland teaches at the Ceremade et Institut de Finance at the Universite Paris-Dauphine.

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