Opinion column published in L'Express on 16 April 2021:
This week, on the walls of Sciences Po, hatred has taken the form of violence, racism and anti-Semitism. The attempt at intimidation and the vileness of these words clearly remind us of the vocation of our university: learning, knowledge, and debate.
At Sciences Po, 14,000 students of more than 160 nationalities, of all backgrounds and religions, choose to build the future of our world together. Our teachers prepare them for this by skilfully challenging their arguments, helping them to look beyond their own interpretations. This is the most dignified response that a university of Humanities and Social Sciences of international standing can provide in the face of ignorance and stupidity. And it is the response we will continue to provide, freely and without respite.
For several weeks now, Sciences Po has been experiencing one of the most painful crises in its history. Faced with the revelations of the intolerable actions of one man, and thanks to a readiness to speak the truth to power, we have made an even greater commitment to place the defence of victims of all forms of violence at the heart of our future. We have already launched a major project to transform our systems for combatting such violence and to review our ethical practices.
Day after day, we try to learn from this crisis, demonstrating our openness to all questions concerning our practices. We understand perfectly that striving for excellence requires the duty to set an example. We are working to reform our governance, to democratise our collective functioning, and to be more transparent.
But let us also recognise the path already taken by our university: the quality of the research produced by our teacher-researchers; the attractiveness of our courses, acclaimed by students and recruiters; the social inclusion and the new democratisation pact, which is shaping the current process of first-year admissions reform.
Today, the boundaries of legitimate criticism have been breached and Sciences Po has become a target, a political object, symbolically responsible for all the ills of French society. The last few weeks have seen an increase in unacceptable personal attacks, tinged with ideology or fuelled by political battles. Criticism of the elites has turned into a witch-hunt, stoking the brutalization of public debate, which strays far from any nuance or intellectual honesty.
We will face down the caricatures, the false accusations and now the threats. And thanks to the work of all those who serve our institution with remarkable integrity and commitment, Sciences Po will overcome the crisis and continue on its way, the way of a university steeped in social debate and determined to bring this to life within its walls, while respecting diversity and freedom. “A society cannot, without great harm, do without an independent institution dedicated to disinterested reflection and critical judgment as well as to the dissemination of acquired knowledge,” wrote René Rémond in the last pages of his book (1), which is devoted to his experience as President of a major university in crisis. That was 50 years ago, another crisis, another France, a bygone world, and yet the university’s mission was concordant with ours. This is our mission. No matter what the hatemongers say.
Bénédicte Durand, interim administrator of Sciences Po.
(1) “La règle et le consentement, gouverner une société”, by René Rémond (Fayard) 1979.