Talking leadership 19: Alain Fuchs on managing a merger

The PSL president discusses bringing staff on board and not over-centralising services

March 29, 2022
Alain Fuchs, president of PSL
Source: PSL

The secret to presiding over a university merger is reassuring people that their institution will not lose its identity, says Alain Fuchs of Paris Sciences et Lettres – PSL Research University Paris, arguably one of the most successful mergers in recent history.

Fuchs, who was not head of PSL when it was established in 2010 but has been president since 2017, talks to Times Higher Education about the challenges of managing a merged institution, dealing with colleagues who believe widening access means sacrificing excellence, and why being an early career researcher was easier in his day.

A university is born

PSL is an amalgamation of 11 well-established institutions in the Latin Quarter of Paris. It was born out of a national strategy, initiated in 2010, to unite smaller high-achieving institutes into world-leading universities.

“There was no such thing as comprehensive universities in France. So we needed to build a sort of 21st-century university”, Fuchs says.

The government’s €10.3 billion (£8.6 billion) Initiatives d’Excellence (Idex) programme provided the financial incentive to merge, but the initial challenge for leaders was deciding which institutions were in and which were out. The government chose not to dictate how they should merge, so it was a case of leaders getting around the table and negotiating.

They all knew they were probably going to have to join one merger, Fuchs says; the question was which one. “It was extremely complicated. And there were some ups and downs.”

Other attempts at mergers fell apart because, Fuchs says, “at some stage, one or two of the institution heads simply didn’t believe or didn’t want to, or were more afraid of losing some autonomy of their own institution”.

“It depends a lot on the will of the different institutions,” he continues. “I think PSL was very lucky in a sense because, especially in the first few years, the heads of institutions really agreed with each other and were all very pushy.”

But the leaders also had to get the rank and file on board.

“The main constraint is a certain number of people asking, ‘Is our old and identified institution going to disappear in terms of the equilibrium with PSL?’” To tackle this, he has to be careful not to talk about PSL too much, Fuchs says, lest they feel their home institutions are being superseded.

He spends much time reassuring people that their school identity will not be lost, and he has some ready examples of institutions that are famous in their own right despite being part of larger universities, such as the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

But what about the culture – do the academics feel more associated with their school or with PSL? Fuchs says it’s both, citing the affiliations that Oxford and Cambridge faculty feel with both their college and their university as a similar example.

Repeatedly laying out the benefits of merging was also key. As well as the funding they would be eligible for as a larger institution, Fuchs says stressing the interdisciplinary working PSL could foster was a big draw. “When you say to these guys, ‘we're going to build something that helps interdisciplinarity, that helps doing things together’…it helps a great deal.”

Researchers took to joint working quickly, and the next stage was merging education. PhDs are now cross-school, as are many of the university's master’s degrees. PSL is in the process of enabling more interdisciplinary working for undergraduate students, and all their degrees are now labelled PSL degrees. Research papers are also all credited to PSL.

Centralising services

Fuchs is mindful of the danger of over-centralisation. “When I meet my university president colleagues in different places, many of them more or less complain that the central administration is too heavy,” ­­he says. He has tried to keep centralising light-touch.

PSL has a central office for international relations as well as for project management, student health, housing, sports and social activities, such as an orchestra. This was beneficial because some of the schools “had a lot of difficulties with social services for students because they were too small”.

Other services, such as payment of salaries, are still separate (in France, many academics are direct employees of state departments, such as the Ministry of Education or the Ministry of Culture).

Now that PSL is established, a key challenge is making sure the “knowledge circulates” between the faculties, he says.

So, has the merger saved them some cash? In a word, no.

“To be absolutely frank, I think, for the time being, we are not saving a lot of money,” Fuchs says. However, “saving money was not at all the purpose.” But the merger has allowed the university to be more rational in the way it spends money, such as better use of buildings, he points out.

Increasing access

A study published in December by France’s independent Economic Analysis Council (CAE) found that access to higher education in the country was as unequal as in the US, despite negligible tuition fees. This is something that concerns Fuchs.

He says PSL is increasing access for poorer students through partnerships with 60 underprivileged and rural schools, and now 10 per cent of students at some of their institutions are the first in their families to go to university.

In an effort to widen access, some universities accept lower grades if a student went to a poorly performing school. Is this something PSL does? Fuchs says, emphatically, “no”. “I'm not complaining about the fact that some institutions do this, but this is not at all our motto…our motto is ‘have the courage to use your own intelligence.’”

He continues: “Our motto is excellence and diversity. Of course, it’s not extremely original. You will find hundreds of universities around the world saying that they want to do excellence and diversity,” he says. “But it’s very special in France because in France excellence meant for a long time attracting the bourgeoisie. On the other hand, diversity is ‘do something for the poor students.’”

“We have had, even in the last few years, people on our board of trustees saying you just can’t do both those things,” but the mindset is changing, he adds.

He fears that a lower bar for entry could lead to a “double class: first-class and second-class students, those who came through the usual highly demanding examinations and those who went into a special entry exam with a lower barrier”.

“We actually rely on the intelligence and on the capacity of very, very good students, whether they’re rich or poor.”

To Paris

Fuchs himself is from a relatively modest background. Born in Switzerland, he was the first in his family to attend university. His father worked for a computing company, and his job took the family to Africa for much of his childhood. He studied chemical engineering at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, then moved to Paris for his PhD, “not because I thought at that time that in Paris science was absolutely fantastic, no. The idea was I wanted to live in Paris.”

He didn’t find it hard to take the next step: “Quite naturally, when you have this kind of higher education, you’re more or less invited to do a PhD,” he says.

He acknowledges that it is harder for young academics today.

“The underlying big question is a scarcity of jobs…this was not a problem 30 years ago, not at all,” he says.

Fuchs adds that the intellectual ability and the level of achievement of some of the PSL early career researchers is incredibly high because competition is fierce: “I wasn’t at that level at all when I was 25 years old. Not at all.”

This is part of our “Talking leadership” series of 50 interviews over 50 weeks with the people running the world’s top universities about how they solve common strategic issues and implement change. Follow the series here.

Do French universities want more freedom? Read our in-depth feature on the topic. 

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