Richard Descoings, director of Sciences Po, the university I attended for 5 years in Paris, died today at 53. In his 16 years at the helm he transformed it more deeply than any other French institution, by opening it to everyone that didn’t have access to it previously - foreigners, people from province or deprived areas - while maintaining its unique culture.
Saying he was loved by his students is an understatement. Nothing since Steve Jobs’ death has shaken my Facebook community so much - most of my friends have changed their profile picture to honour his memory. Politicians and personalities from around the world have officially shared their pain and sorrow. How many other president of universities, in France and abroad, would have provoked the same emotion? How many do you even know of?
The recent debate on his pay check looks quite silly today: Richie was in a class of his own, and in all likelihood, he wasn’t paid enough given how good he was.
The last hippie: love the world and the world will love you
His eccentric Facebook updates and public chats with students are stuff of legend, and his social media savviness clearly played a good part in his incredible popularity. He was fun, approachable, human, but this alone cannot explain a phenomenon that went well beyond his personality.
People loved him because he was sending them, and the world, the positive image they wanted to have, of themselves, of their country, and of the future. By his vision and his action he proved, step by step, that France could change, and that French people could thrive in the world we live in. And he proved education to be the single most important factor of change. The only way for young people to make the most of global opportunities. He was full of confidence that the future would be better if we were ready to learn how to make the most of it and to adapt to its changing realities. By making it compulsory to spend a year abroad, by bringing 40% of foreign students on the campus, Ritchie forced us to step outside of our comfort zone and look at the world around.
It may sound like typical Sciences Po bullshit but it isn’t. When I joined Sciences Po at 17, I had never lived outside Dijon, never spent time with foreign people, never spoken in public, and I couldn’t say two words in English. 10 years later, I’ve lived in London for the past 5 years, spent a year studying in the US, and blog in English as my primary written language. Today, I work on a daily basis with Americans, Swedes, Israelis, Germans, French, Russians and tens of other nationalities, launching tech startups and/or helping them grow on every continent. Nothing pre-destined me to do that - Sciences Po was an incredible catalyst. Most of my Sciences Po friends now live and work abroad (from San Francisco to Astana, passing by Bagdad), keen on taking risk and going where there is opportunity and work for them.
This is certainly not limited to Sciences Po: every single French educative institution is more open to the world today than 16 years ago. What’s truly remarkable is the scale of it, and to have done it while almost tripling the number of students, democratising its access, and still maintaining the standard of education.
Sarkozy likes foreign students after all
By contrast, his death serves as a blunt reminder that the current French presidential election campaign is as far from his ideas as can be. It is quite ironic to see a president who prohibited foreign students from settling in France after their studies praise Richie’s contribution to the international influence of French universities.
Left-wing people accused him of being right-wing (he worked with Sarkozy after all), right-wing people suspected him of having left-wing sympathies (with a spoonful of caviar), but he was probably neither of them. Alone in an increasingly anti-liberal country, he poured all his heart into transforming Sciences Po to be competitive on the global stage, making it attractive to foreign talents and offering its students with the highest quality of education, infrastructure and international exposure.
His job clearly wasn’t done yet, but no later than today, a German colleague of mine recommended that I meet with a superstar candidate, who was born and raised in Peru, went to university in the US, and proudly put on his CV that he had spent a year abroad at Sciences Po, before joining the UN and later Goldman Sachs. This is what global reach feels like.
I vote for Richie
By his hard work, dedication and undeniable French flair, he proved that the French education system could be changed from within. He did more for France’s influence in the world than any politician in recent years. Generations of French and foreign students will now share that special love for Paris, the French way of life, and the different education you could get rue Saint-Guillaume. And for that, Richie, you are my president.