At Elite French University, One Hurdle After Another

It may turn out to be a good vintage for French wine, but 2012 has been a terrible year for the Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris, the elite institute for political studies known as Sciences Po, which last week had its interim director removed by the French higher education minister, Geneviève Fioraso, who installed another candidate in his place.

In April, the school’s longtime director, Richard Descoings, was found dead in a New York hotel room. Officials ruled in May that he died of natural causes.

Under Mr. Descoings’s leadership the school instituted a controversial affirmative action program to recruit students from disadvantaged backgrounds, opened six satellite campuses and turned a feeder school for the French civil service into an international powerhouse that drew 40 percent of its students from outside France.

Even before Mr. Descoings’s death, the Cour des Comptes, the national audit office, had announced in October 2011 that it would investigate the university’s accounts from 2005 to 2010.

The Ministry of Higher Education and Research wanted the search for a new director to be delayed until the audit office could announce its findings, but the faculty pressed ahead with its search and on Oct. 30 nominated Hervé Crès, a deputy to Mr. Descoings who had been acting director, to succeed him.

Even though some details had been leaked to the French news media, when the national audit office formally published its findings on Nov. 22 the results were damning: Sciences Po was faulted for its “weak internal and external controls,” the “abusive use of credit cards” by staff members, “toxic loans” for faculty housing and the practice of paying some professors more than others even though they had fewer teaching hours.

According to French news reports, the investigation said that Mr. Descoings, whose gross annual pay was €537, 000, or about $700,000, was paid too much and in a manner that was “not transparent.” By comparison, President François Hollande of France is paid €179,000; his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, received €255,600.

Last week Ms. Fioraso announced that Jean Gaeremynck, the head of the finance section of the Conseil d’État, or Council of State, would serve as the interim director of Sciences Po.

The school, which receives just over half its financing from the French government, has a unique structure that divides responsibility between the Institut and the Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques, a private, nonprofit foundation that manages the school and presides over research. Traditionally, the same person has led both units, but Francis Vérillaud, vice president of the school, said that Mr. Gaeremynck would only head the institute.

“Hervé Crès had been elected by both boards after a search procedure,” Mr. Vérillaud said by telephone. “Now that process has been interrupted.”

Mr. Vérillaud pointed out that while the audit office’s report identified serious “dysfunctions” in the way the school was managed, no members of the administration had been singled out by name.

“Sciences Po is a public university. When you use public money there has to be regulation and accountability,” Mr. Vérillaud said. “We took this report very seriously. Sciences Po will make the corrections necessary.”

The school has already issued a 75-page response to the report promising corrective action.

Some of the furor, however, appears to stem from Mr. Descoings’s effort to transform the institution. French professors are civil servants, whose salaries and working hours are strictly controlled. It was difficult for Mr. Descoings to recruit the faculty he wanted without offering the kind of arrangements, on pay and teaching load, that were criticized by the auditors.

“Descoings was a visionary,” Mr. Vérillaud said. “In a globalized world you have to adapt to survive, and sometimes institutions find it painful to change.”

- nytimes.com


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