The shocking news spread quickly. The first students arrived at 27 rue St Guillaume in the early morning of April 4, bearing candles, flowers and messages in memory of Richard Descoings, Sciences Po's 53-year-old president, who was found dead in his New York hotel. By 9am, the crowd had swelled to several hundred, as students, staff and faculty filled the garden to pay their respects in an impromptu ceremony.
Standing by a giant photo of Richard Descoings, deputy director Hervé Crès said, "Richard Descoings transformed a university institution into a vibrant international community. He passionately loved this institution." After a minute's silence, the crowd who included Laurent Wauquiez, French Minister of Higher Education and Research, looked up at the first floor windows of what had been Richard Descoings' office and broke into sustained applause as a sign of their gratitude for his life and work. (see the video)
One week later, on April 11, about 3,000 people including students, faculty and Sciences Po staff filled the church of St Sulpice in the 6th arrondissement of Paris for a service organized by his family and attended by many of his friends. A photograph of Richard Descoings in New York taken just days before his death hung by the altar and on columns outside, and the church was bedecked with wreaths and bouquets of white flowers.
The official tributes also arrived quickly, first from French leaders, and then from around the world. President Nicolas Sarkozy hailed "the exceptional career of this great servant of the state," and said that Richard Descoings had "contributed more than anyone of his generation to furthering the prestige of France's higher education system."
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and Columbia University President Lee Bollinger said in a joint statement that they were "deeply saddened" by the death. "He was a global leader on education policy, recognized and honoured both in France and around the world for his contributions to research and policy," they said. At the time of his death, Richard Descoings had been in New York to attend a U.N. conference for university presidents at Columbia.
Many other university partners around the world also sent messages of condolence and homage to Richard Descoings, including Yale and Northwestern University in the U.S., Fudan and Peking University in China, the Colegio de México, Brazil's Fundação Getulio Vargas, the Freie Universität in Berlin and the London School of Economics. Maurice Fraser, who directs the European Affairs dual Master program with Sciences Po at the LSE, wrote in the Guardian that "Richard had spotted a perfect academic fit, and his legacy will endure."
Jean-Claude Casanova, chairman of the board of the Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques and Michel Pébéreau, President of the Executive Committee of Sciences Po, both voiced their sadness, calling Descoings' death an "irreparable loss". (read Jean-Claude Casanova's full statement)
Foreign Minister, Alain Juppe, described Richard Descoings as "an untiring actor" for the cause of French higher education on the world stage and "a remarkable renovation artist of a landmark French university institution.
Among the most poignant and heartfelt messages were those written by hundreds of current and former students at Sciences Po. They were placed on trestle tables in the hall of 27 rue St Guillaume, alongside candles and flowers, or posted on Facebook. "Dear Director, thank you for having opened Sciences Po's doors. Without you, I would not be studying here," read one. "You were our Dumbledore," said another.
Spontaneous ceremonies were also held on the six Sciences Po undergraduate campuses outside of Paris that are one of Richard Descoings' many enduring legacies. As President of Sciences Po since 1996, he transformed the institution with a series of remarkable - and sometimes controversial - innovations that have had an influence not just on Sciences Po but also have left their mark on the French higher education landscape more broadly.
More than a decade ago, he had been far ahead of many French university presidents in embracing the "Bologna" system of higher education, switching to an orderly system of undergraduate, graduate and doctoral studies. Then came the big push to internationalize Sciences Po, by insisting that all undergraduates spend one full year abroad, and by boosting the number of international students. Sciences Po today has 400 university partners around the world, and 40% of its students are not French, but come from 130 countries.
At home in France, he is best known for changing the admission requirements a decade ago in order to bring in many more students from underprivileged backgrounds. These students now comprise 10% of the annual undergraduate intake. Rather than sitting the written entrance exams taken by a majority of French students, they are pre-selected by their secondary schools and then sit for a tough interview. That change in policy, which has transformed the social composition of the student body and now extends to 85 secondary schools, was accompanied by a new system of tuition fees and scholarships. Today more than one in four students at Sciences Po receives some form of financial aid, up from just 6% a decade ago.
More recently, his focus was on strengthening Sciences Po's research capacity, with the recruitment of a number of world-renowned faculty. And in the past few months, he had been working with colleagues from seven other higher education institutions to bring about a streamlining around research excellence with the creation of a brand new French university, University Sorbonne Paris City. Richard Descoings called it a "Big Bang" in the French higher education landscape, and was spearheading the consortium's effort. He was thrilled when an international jury in February picked the project as one of the winners of a French government competition, and he was starting to work on the next stage with his colleagues at the time of his death.
Such achievements earned him widespread respect and honours. Richard Descoings was awarded a Légion d'Honneur, France's top decoration, in 2005, and he also received international accolades, including an honorary doctorate from Tokyo's Waseda University. In 2009 he was commissioned by President Sarkozy to write a report on how to improve secondary schools.
For students, though, all these official honours paled beside their recollection of the man who would greet them courteously in the hallways, listen to them attentively or engage in lively conversation, in person or on Facebook. "Richie," the students called him informally, and he didn't object.
One unsigned note in neat handwriting placed on a table in the hall expressed the feelings of many. "Thank you for having changed my life and that of many students," it said simply. "You will always remain the emblem of this school, that you have worked to make more beautiful."