Fluctuat et Mergitur (Issue 10/2017)

Your voice of reason at Paris-Saclay

(For our own cause)
According to the latest AEF news, the University Paris-Saclay is considering to split into one university around Paris-Sud, and one university around Ecole Polytechnique. This could have consequences that go far beyond the existence of Paris-Saclay: It could endanger the existence of this newspaper. Ever since its inception, this newspaper has talked exclusively about the troubles that plague Paris-Saclay — what now if these troubles find an end?

We have talked about this alarming prospect with Dr. Naibaf from Télécom ParisTech, one of the leading proponents of Paris-Saclay.

F&M: Dr. Naibaf, you are well aware that the disintegration of Paris-Saclay may not just mean years of wasted effort on the side of the lecturers who invested in the shared project, a loss of credibility for the partner institutions, and the reduction or loss of IDEX money, but more importantly also the end of this newspaper. Are we rightly worried?

Dr. Naibaf: I do not think so. The partner institutes of Paris-Saclay have not systematically analyzed, and publicly discussed the problems of Paris-Saclay. Neither have they publicly elaborated alternative solutions (delaying Paris-Saclay, abandoning Paris-Saclay, reducing Paris-Saclay, making Paris-Saclay more federative, splitting Paris-Saclay into 2, 3, or more projects, etc.). Given that neither the problems nor the solutions are publicly known, I cannot tell whether the proposed split is a solution, let alone whether it is the best one. It is very well possible that the problems will just be reproduced in each of the new universities.

F&M: That would indeed be very good news for our cause. Let us start with the first problem of Paris-Saclay: The institutions committed to the common project even though each of them had a different vision about it. Polytechnique wants a loose cluster of co-located universities, while Paris-Sud wants an integrated university. May we hope that this problem persists?

Dr. Naibaf: This is indeed quite likely. On the Paris-Sud side, there is the antagonism between Paris-Sud and the University of Versailles. Paris-Sud has declared that there can be only one university in Paris-Saclay (they themselves), and this annoys Versailles. On the Polytechnique side, there is no concrete plan at this point of time. Thus, prospective members may hope for things such as a common identity in international rankings, a common diploma, a common recruitment, or a share of the Polytechnique-brand — while Polytechnique may very well have no such intentions. Since the decision of which university to join will have to be taken by December, the institutes may not have enough time to make sure that they agree on a common vision in either of the two universities.

F&M: That is indeed reassuring. The second problem of Paris-Saclay is the unclear responsibilities. The government wants the institutes to merge, but the institutes shall do so by their own choice. This contradiction became clearest when Polytechnique refused to merge by its own choice.

Dr. Naibaf: This problem is so fundamental that it is likely to persist. The government is the ultimate decider, but it hesitates to go against the will of the big players.

F&M: Nice! The third problem of Paris-Saclay, which directly follows from the previous one, is that the institutes never agreed to delegate powers to the central organization of Paris-Saclay. In this way, there was no central entity that spoke in the interest of the common good, and everyone basically spoke for their own interest. How can this problem be continued?

Dr. Naibaf: This is more difficult. On the Paris-Sud side, the institutes may aim for an “ever closer union”, where the central authority has more powers. On the Polytechnique side, in contrast, there is little talk of forming a central authority. Thus, it is likely that the institutes will advertise a common brand, but continue speaking mainly for their own interests.

F&M: Good! The fourth problem, which again follows directly from the third, is that there is no common infrastructure at Paris-Saclay: no common calendar that is supported by the institutes, no software to register the students across institutes, and no agreed-upon organization of the university (they are still debating whether to organize the university into departments and schools or into graduate schools). All of this remains unsolved, even though the university has been open to students for 3 years. Is there hope on this front (that the problem can be continued)?

Dr. Naibaf: Absolutely! As an example for the continued uncertainty in organizational matters, consider that Paris-Saclay has just announced the formation of an “undergraduate college”, which would bundle the Bachelor programs together. In an unusual step, this plan has not just been announced on AEF, but also announced publicly, and even emailed to the staff of Paris-Saclay. Just a few weeks later, we hear that this plan has been abandoned. This shows that the fundamental organizational problems are likely to continue on the Paris-Sud side. The Polytechnique side is even more worrying: The decision of whether to join Paris-Sud or Polytechnique will have to be taken in the coming 2 months, and so far it is not even clear whether the Polytechnique side will be able to grant its own master's and PhD diplomas.

F&M: How nice! The fifth problem of Paris-Saclay is the different reputations of the institutes. Paris-Saclay was meant to unify France’s most prestigious institutes with a large number of less visible institutes. The engineering schools select their students, while the universities cannot do that. This mix was never going to work, in particular because the problem has never been put on the table. Will this problem continue?

Dr. Naibaf: While the split will reduce the variance in each bunch, there is still sufficient variance in each project. On the Paris-Sud side, engineering schools and universities will be joined, with no consideration so far for the fundamental incompatibility between the two systems or the different selectivities even among the institutes of the same type. On the Polytechnique side, we remember that Télécom ParisTech refused to merge with Télécom Sud Paris. Therefore, it is not clear why Polytechnique would want to be associated with Télécom Sud Paris, or indeed with Télécom ParisTech for that matter. Both ParisTech and the Institut Mines Télécom are examples of engineering school partnerships that have not worked fully as intended, and it has not been explained so far why the new partnership would be any different.

F&M: Fantastic! The sixth problem of Paris-Saclay was that the flow of information was chaotic: The “Conseil des Tutelles Formation” did not publish their decisions until 2017, the “Conseil des Membres” has never sent out their decisions to the university staff at all, the “Conseil stratégique de la school SOEIST” has reportedly disintegrated without anybody noticing, fundamental information about the future of Paris-Saclay was not shared with the staff, the “Conseil Académique” (which represents university staff) had little to say in the transformation of Paris-Sud into Paris-Saclay, as have the representatives of staff, and some schools do not even have a written regulation. Consequently, most information passes by word of mouth. This was a particularly rich ground of reporting for our newspaper. We hope that there are no plans to change this?

Dr. Naibaf: You see, to this day, the partner institutes have not publicly admitted that there is a problem with Paris-Saclay at all. All we hear is that there is a solution now, but we do not even know the problem. As for the solution, there is no public written document about the proposed structure of the Polytechnique university. It is true that the institutes try to legitimize the decision to split Paris-Saclay by consulting the opinion of their staff, but such consultation is difficult while the option of Polytechnique remains undefined.

F&M: Great! The seventh problem of Paris-Saclay was a kind of dogmatic belief that just by creating a new common entity, the international visibility would automatically increase. This is a very popular illusion, with Télécom ParisTech belonging to at least 6 such initiatives (Paris-Saclay, Institut Mines Télécom, ParisTech, Eurecom, Franco-German Academy, Joint Research Program on Big Data Management). Such initiatives are almost never the response to an a-priori analysis of needs in the midst of the lecturer-researchers, but rather born out of political considerations. After the creation, the lecturer-researchers are invited to collaborate with the newly partnered institutes, so as to justify the partnership a-posteriori. And yet, by accumulating such initiatives, the visibility and the latitude of the partnered institutes actually decrease, while the bureaucracy and the friction loss actually increase. We rely a lot on this phenomenon for our articles; we hope it is not being put into question?

Dr. Naibaf: On the contrary! For fear that the two new universities of Paris-Saclay could compete like any other two universities, there is already discussion about how the new universities could share their programs, or how they could present themselves as “complementary”. It may well happen that they cannot resist creating another supra-institution, which unites the two new universities — leading to yet another bureaucratic layer (“lightweight”, of course). In the end, there is the danger of the Brexit-phenomenon: The leaving entity continues to share resources, constraints, and obligations with the mother institution, but since it quit the mother institution, it de facto just reduced its own influence on the constraints that rule it.

F&M: Brilliant! One last problem of Paris-Saclay is that nobody has ever apologized for the mishaps of Paris-Saclay. Nobody has taken responsibility for the mismanagement of the project. Will this...

Dr. Naibaf: ...no.

F&M: We thank you for this interview.

Dr. Naibaf: You are welcome! By discussing the problems of Paris-Saclay openly, you may actually be doing the common cause more good than you pretend.

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