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Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Richard Descoings, directeur Sciences Po-Paris: In Memorium

Richard Descoings passed away suddenly and shockingly in his New York hotel room this week, at the age of 53.  He had for years been a leading figure in French academia as the head of one of its handful of most prominent grandes écoles, L'Institut d'Etudes Politiques in Paris, widely known as Sciences Po.  He was perhaps best known for being the country's leading voice in favor of implementing a version of affirmative action that would start to integrate the children of France's segregated banlieu into its elite educational institutions.  He saw the future of France as the future of a multiracial society, and was doing more than anyone in his rarified sector of French higher education to make this a reality.

Descoings was equally intent on making Sciences Po-Paris a global institution, but not so much by creating branch campuses on the American model as by sending and receiving students to and from everywhere in the largest volume possible.  At a lunch in Paris last year, he explained to me that the theory was simple: "we have to prepare French social science students to work anywhere in the world, and to belong to the world."  The implementation was not always easy, as I well knew from various bureaucratic discussions I had had with Sciences Po staff in my capacity as the director of the University of California's education abroad programs there.  But he had helped create one of the most exciting places for foreign as well as French students in the country and perhaps in Europe, and Sciences Po showed no signs of anything but continued progress.

That lunch was almost a year ago, and arose from one of the saddest events of my life -- the accidental death in an apartment fire of one of our UCEAP students in Paris, Jasmine Jahanshahi. Jasmine was a UC Berkeley junior who was attending Sciences Po for the year, and Sciences Po's personnel had been called first when city officials arrived at the scene of the fire, where a total of five students lost their lives. Deaths like these are always catastrophic --I have still not recovered from Jasmine's--and hers was as bad as it gets.  RIP all over again, Jasmine Sans Peur.

Richard Descoings presided over a memorial for all of the affected students, in Sciences Po's main amphi in the rue Guillaume. The place was packed to the rafters, and in keeping with its history of sponsoring controversy, one of the foreign students, a friend of several of the deceased, shouted from the balcony her incredulity at the apparent lack of concern in France and Paris for basic fire safety (even smoke alarms, much less fire escapes, were not required in the city of Paris). She demanded to know what Richard was going to do about fire safety reform.  Richard tried diplomatically to say that such reforms would not bring back the dead and that they should be discussed at another time, which prompted another indignant response.  The memorial ended, with a fifth of the crowd at any given time weeping openly, many with their heads on their desks in despair.  And the fire safety issue was not going away.

When Jasmine's family came to Paris a month later -- her parents, brother, and grandmother, in the company of cousins who lived in the area-- they had already started a Fire Safety Foundation in her memory. They also came bearing smoke alarms, two cartons worth, that they planned to hand out to officials to raise awareness of how easy it could be to make such tragedies far less likely.  Richard Descoings' staff was worried that the smoke alarms would make the official lunch and other events awkward and even confrontational, and were not pleased when we all trouped up the steps and into the formal room,  Reza Jahanshahi and I carrying cartons of smoke alarms.

We had quite an interesting lunch conversation for the first forty-five minutes, and then Reza in all of his peaceful gravitas began to talk about fire safety, using his expertise as a structural engineer.  Richard listened, and then began to nod, and nodded through the entire short disquisition.  At the end he said, "I agree with you entirely.  We will do everything you suggest. We will post your information on our website.  We will find out exactly what happened and how it can be avoided in the future. You tell us how we should do this and we will do it." 

I was relieved, but most of all grateful for how Richard brought the bereaved family into the heart of Sciences Po and into a future process, in a moment in which a more conventional administrator would have drawn boundaries in order to quarantine the tragic incident.

I took a picture of Richard and Reza sharing a smoke alarm.  

I will always remember Richard Descoings like this - as a reader of human signals and for his powers of harmonization.

What a terrible loss.


The Paris Chronicles said...

We are all saddened and shocked here in Paris. Thank you for this tribute, and the opportunity to re-remember that lunch. -Shelby

cloudminder said...

Thank you for sharing your thoughts of Richard, and of Jasmine. Sincères et profondes condoléances.

Ajlounyinjurylaw said...

RIP. He will surely be missed.

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