Richard Descoings, director of the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), passed away Tuesday, April 3 in his hotel room in New York City. How he died has not yet been made public.
Descoings visited the city occasionally for conferences, sometimes with leaders of the world’s biggest universities. One such gathering was held recently at Columbia University under the aegis of the general secretary of United Nations, Ban Ki-moon.
Two days before his sudden death at the Michelangelo Hotel, Descoings was telling his students via his Facebook page how excited he was about the conference. When he did not show up to the event that was so important to him, his colleagues asked the hotel and the authorities to look into it.
The New York Police Department did not respond to the AmNews’ request for comment.
In France, he will be remembered as a man who dared to reform the prestigious school of politics, which has been in existence since the 19th century. He worked to break up its “elitist” reputation. In 2001, Descoings expanded access to the school to the best students from underprivileged areas of Paris.
According to the French paper Le Monde, the proportion of students from underprivileged families increased from “3 percent to 12 percent between 1998 and 2011. Even though the proportion of students of privileged families is still considerably higher (70 percent), this would have been worse if Richard Descoings hadn’t set up this system.”
But reforming the school that is training tomorrow’s political leaders was not an easy task for him, and it triggered a lot of debates in the educational system. Some argued that opening such a school to students from selected underprivileged areas would decrease its level of excellence.
Adversaries of this policy of social and cultural diversification based their argument on the French “myth of meritocracy,” whose main principles hold that, since everybody is equal, everybody has to earn their social or professional status by working. The same adversaries saw in Descoings’ reform a way to kill this myth, thinking that all students have the same chances of integrating Sciences Po and that no social criteria should be taken into account.
However, social diversification wasn’t Descoings’ only battlefield in the 16 years of his directorship, where he managed to open Sciences Po to the world. He multiplied the number of partnerships and programs with the best universities of the world to allow his students to study or intern abroad and to allow students everywhere to come study at Sciences Po in Paris. Today, Sciences Po is known internationally through the work of Descoings.
Full disclosure: This reporter is herself a direct beneficiary of Descoings’ program to recruit students from unprivileged areas. Thanks to his policy of international exchange, this same writer is now interning at the Amsterdam News.
Rajaa, a French student interning in New York, may be the last student who spoke with Descoings. In an Amsterdam News interview, she said, “The notoriety, the charisma and the ambition of this man did not make him inaccessible to his students. He was devoted to them. Some students even compared him to Dumbledore [the friendly headmaster from the ‘Harry Potter’ movies].
“Descoings broke up the tough image we can often have of school directors. He would rather be remembered as one of your favorite teachers, always smiling, easily accessible, the one who believed in you and encouraged you.”
Rajaa and other students said that Descoings will be missed in the French educational system, as well as in the Sciences Po national and international students community.
In a tribute organized last Wednesday at Columbia University, Francis Verillaud, director of international affairs and exchanges of Sciences Po, told the Amsterdam News, “He was the soul of Sciences Po and has profoundly reformed the school in 16 years of direction. Our role will be to continue his struggle and preserve the changes he made.”