Fluctuat et Mergitur

Your voice of reason at the Plateau de Saclay

The End
For several years now, we have accompanied the engineering school Télécom Paris in its projects. We have covered its first attempt to build a compound university together with other schools, the University of Paris Saclay. We have also covered how Télécom Paris quit the University of Paris-Saclay, and joined the Institut polytechnique de Paris (IP Paris) instead.

We now have to admit that we have run out of novel articles that we could publish: IP Paris first admits students and only later puts in place the necessary administration? We already had that at Paris-Saclay! Committees do no share their decisions with the lecturers? Yeah, we also had that at Paris-Saclay. A lack of digital infrastructure? That's just like at Paris-Saclay! A jungle of partially overlapping educational programs? We already have one at Télécom Paris alone. A hegemony of one of the schools? That also somehow reminds us of Paris-Saclay. An ever-growing thicket of cross-institutional institutions? We had one at Télécom alone already. Should we potentially even make constructive proposals? We did that back in 2018 already Fluctuat et Mergitur article on how to improve IP ParisProposals by the DIG team to improve Télécom ParisSlides by the DIG team to improve Télécom Paris.

The time has thus come to wrap up. We have withdrawn our undercover agents from the presidency of the Master's program Data&Knowledge at Paris-Saclay University, and the presidency of the Data AI Master's program, of the Computer Science Program, and of the PhD track Computer Science at IP Paris. Fluctuat et Mergitur will come to an end. In this last article, we offer a constructive summary of what has changed for the better over these last years. We will accompany this summary by the notes of people who participated in the relevant meetings. [All textboxes without sources are taken from the historical meeting protocols of our undercover agentsSee also: Rapport d'étonnement sur Paris-Saclay en 2015]

Teaching in English

When our reporters first arrived at Télécom Paris, it was illegal to teach in English in France. This changed in 2013. At Paris-Saclay University, the Master's progam “Data&Knowledge” was one of the few taught in English — against much opposition (see the meeting protocols below). Now, at IP Paris, the entire Computer Science program is taught in English. Since 2020, all official emails at Télécom Paris are sent in both English and French. English has thus become a common language for teaching, research, and communication — just like in the rest of Europe.
Planning Paris-Saclay in 2013
I proposed to teach in English. There was opposition. Arguments were
* some students will not be able to follow, and will leave
* we will lose students from the Maghreb, who speak French but often not English

I argued that
* the goal of UPSa is to be a top school (objections here: "that is bullshit")
* most of the top students in the world are not francophone, but anglophone (objections here: "No, the top students at *our* university do not speak English!")

Protocol of the Computer Science Program at IP Paris, 2020-03-23
All courses, and thus all master tracks, and thus the entire education in computer science [is] in English.
Planning Paris-Saclay in 2013
I raise the point that we have to accompany foreign students not just in teaching, but also administratively. The proposal that they should receive administrative emails not in French but in English provokes laughter.
Emails at Télécom Paris since 2020
From: Nicolas Glady

[English version below]

Chères et chers collègues, chères étudiantes, chers étudiants, [...]

[English version]

Dear colleagues and students, [...]

Choice of Courses

At the construction of Paris-Saclay, it was not conceivable to allow students freedom in their choice of courses. The entire curriculum was planned, and it left no leeway for student preferences. This was accompanied by a staggering complexity of programs Slides by the DIG team. Today, at IP Paris, all master's programs in Computer Science offer the students the possibility to take arbitrary courses and receive ECTS credits in return. The PhD track even consists entirely of freely chosen courses.
Planning Paris-Saclay in 2013
The entire philosophy of the organization is to predefine every single course that the students may take, complete with content and the lecturers. [...] This design has several disadvantages: We cannot adapt to a new lecturer. There is no way we can add a module. We can also not adapt to a new course. If someone wishes to teach a new course, then students will not have time to follow it, because they do not get credits in their program. We also cannot adapt to major thematic changes.
Web page of the PhD track of IP Paris, 2021
The students follow an individualized program of courses, tailored to their interests and background. Each student is accompanied by a tutor, who helps with the choice of courses and validates the program. The courses can be chosen, among others, from the courses of the Master’s programs in Computer Science.

A central organization

I raised a general question: I observed that in all committees that I have seen (including this one), people represent the constraints and interests of their institutions. I asked whether there was any committee that develops and speaks for the grander vision of Paris Saclay University, independent of the constraints of the member institutions. There was no answer to that question. There was literally silence in the room.
Planning Paris-Saclay in 2013
The early years of Paris-Saclay were plagued by a complete absence of a centralized organization. Every member institution spoke for its own interests, and no committee spoke in the interest of the common university. That changed when one of the member institutions declared itself to be identical to the common university. IP Paris chose a more subtle path, in which all key positions are staffed with people from one particular member school. Be that as it may, both compound universities now have a central governance.

Sharing Information

Paris-Saclay outright opposed sharing the decisions of the governing committees with the lecturers. IP Paris does not share decisions with the lecturers either. However, this is not out of an attempt to avoid accountability, or out of contempt for the executing classes, mind you. It is due to “a problem of bandwidth”. This gives hope that the problem can be solved: requests to fill out Excel tables, for example, have no trouble passing to the lecturers.
Paris-Saclay in 2016
From: Fabian M. Suchanek
Date: Tuesday, May 10, 2016, 22:17

À ma connaissance, on n'a jamais reçu un document écrit, signé, et daté du conseil de formation.

Date: Tuesday, May 10, 2016, 22:22

Tu n'en recevras pas.

Chat with the governance of IP Paris in 2020

Semester Harmonisation

Since 2013, there has been an attempt to align the semester dates of the different constituent universities of Paris-Saclay, and later IP Paris. This never achieved any success. Paris-Saclay allowed the campaign to reach out to the schools, departments, and universities, but never had any serious intention to support it. IP Paris, in contrast, does have the intention to align the semesters, but blocked the campaign in 2020. Time will tell which of the two strategies is better.
Planning Paris-Saclay (“UPSa”) in 2014
I made it very plain that in my eyes, in the eyes of everybody I talk to outside UPSa, and in the eyes of everybody inside UPSa who is not involved in the organization, it is a stupidity ("débilité") to found a university, to define the content of the courses, and to count the number of teaching hours per institute without harmonizing the semesters. Most European and American universities work according to predefined semesters, predefined course sizes, and predefined schedules, and if UPSa wants to succeed, it has to do the same.
Planning Paris-Saclay in 2014
Therefore, I have initiated a taskforce [...] The creation of this taskforce was quite controversial, because some people did not think that a harmonisation would be good or possible.
Strategic document of IP Paris, 2019
Actions opérationnelles à instruire en priorité: synchronisation des calendriers

Digital Infrastructure

Chat with the governance of IP Paris in 2020
Paris-Saclay had no working digital infrastructure to register students, grades, or courses globally. Neither does IP Paris Slides by the DIG team. However, the problem has at least been recognized as such. This can be considered progress, given the previous complete disdain for practical problems on the ground.

Simplifying the Institutions

ParisTech: “ambition de créer un MIT à la française” [Monde des Grandes Ecoles, 2011-04-15]

Institut Mines-Télécom: “une université technologique dans l’esprit d’universités américaines comme le MIT” [Ministère de la Santé]

Paris-Saclay: “reach the same level of excellence as [the] MIT” [The Conversation, 2015-05-27]

IP Paris: “la marque du MIT à la française : Institut Polytechnique De Paris” [Ecole Polytechnique, 2019-02-07]

We have always severely criticized networks that regroup several universities for the purpose of generating visibility Slides by the DIG team. Télécom Paris, for example, was a member of the networks “ParisTech”, “Institut Mines Télécom”, and “Télécom Evolution”. From our perspective, this just creates confusion. The governance of Télécom Paris, however, has always fiercely defended these networks as supposedly vital infrastructure. And yet, without much ado, Télécom Paris left the network “ParisTech” in 2019. No noticeable damage occurred. This gives hope that the same might happen to the networks of “Télécom Evolution” and “Institut Mines Télécom” one day as well.
ParisTech Activity Report in 2013
One of the main events of 2013 was the promulgation of the new French Higher Education and Research Act, which defined new “communities” of universities [such as Paris-Saclay and later IP Paris]. How do you see ParisTech in this new context?

Yves Poilane [director of Télécom Paris]: ParisTech has an important role to play. Our primary mission is to design and implement multidisciplinary projects in the areas of training, research and innovation to meet business needs.

Web page of Télécom Paris in 2019
Télécom Paris est un des membres fondateurs du réseau ParisTech. Aujourd’hui, l’école quitte ce groupement pour rejoindre pleinement l’IP Paris.

Structure of Télécom Paris

The existence of both departments and research labs in French institutions of higher education has long led to confusion for foreigners Slides by the DIG team. And yet, until 2018, it was unthinkable to question this structure at Télécom Paris (Reason given: “C'est le labo!” / “C'est le département!”). In 2020, however, Télécom Paris commissioned a study to propose a re-organisation of the school, and in particular of the departments and laboratories. The goal is to “put in place the necessary changes” (sic!).
Télécom Paris in 2018
We argue that it is redundant and time-consuming to have two structures that are responsible for research (the lab and the department), both with a director, a council, a budget, and a label. [The directors of the lab, department, and school, however] see no redundancy between lab and department.
Télécom Paris in 2020
Télécom Paris commissions a study to re-organize the school, and to reconsider in particular the role of the laboratories and departments.

General strategy

Like the other meetings, this meeting has left me with profound existential doubts about what we are doing.
1) I do not understand the organizational structure of the planning process. I do not see from where the legitimation of our work comes, and who has the power to decide. I am also not sure whether really all partner institutes want this common university.
2) I do not understand why we do not first clarify the global questions (when does the semester start; who is really willing to participate in the common university) before addressing the details (course contents). In my view, this is like building the roof of a house and then searching for the walls.
3) I do not understand why we do not take the opportunity to create something that is better than what is there now. We are all just struggling to get anything done that works. Thus, it appears to me that taxpayers' money and our time could be invested in a more principled and thought-out way.
Planning Paris-Saclay in 2014
We have long argued that excellence does not come from putting together several schools and inventing administrative layers on top. Excellence comes from improving the conditions for lecturers and students: simplifying bureaucracy, paying competitive salaries, providing digital infrastructure, and clarifying the crucial questions (compatibility of diplomas, handling of different selectivities of students, etc.). IP Paris does not agree on this. However, IP Paris did put in place novelties that go beyond lumping together the schools. These are, e.g., fully funded PhD tracks, assistance for lecturers who apply for grants, and generous funding programs.

You see?

Several things that were considered unthinkable just a few years back now happened. This gives us hope that more of them may happen in the future. And just in case they do indeed, we have already prepared a wish list.
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