Losing the Excellence Sweepstakes

In France, one way that the Sarkozy government has been financing major projects on universities is with a large loan it took out in 2010, termed the “Grand Emprunt.” (I would translate this as “major loan” — “grand loan” would sound a bit silly in English.) Part of the funds have been directed towards so-called “Excellence Initiatives” (Idex, initiatives d’excellence) in the universities—the sums offered were large, and many campuses felt obliged to compete for the money. Apparently the president of one regional council was disappointed that his region’s universities failed to get their Idex, and wrote a letter to that effect which has become public. The following letter was one striking rejoinder:

Monsieur le Président,

I must say that it is with consternation that I read the letter you sent to university administrators in your region. This letter has made the rounds of the country, since I myself received it nine times. I can understand your disappointment in learning that the Idex wasn’t chosen in the Grand Idex Sweepstakes. I understand as well that, faced with drying up ministerial funds for higher education and research, the regions have done what they could to help their academic institutions—yours perhaps more than others.

But how is it possible that this desire to do right, this will to defend your region has managed to blind you to the point of not seeing how the “Major Loan” in general, and the “Idex” even more so, are fraudulent? Maybe you forgot that the President of the Republic himself announced that the interest paid out from the loan will be compensated by deductions of regular funding—making it quite officially a zero-sum game, where the losers pay for the winners? Moreover, you obviously haven’t taken into account that the loan procedures are aimed at systematically removing any role from elected academic bodies and at further demolishing our system. How can you not see that it takes a grandiose stupidity to put Montpellier and Marseille, Lyon and Grenoble, Bordeaux and Toulouse, Paris 2-4-6 and Paris 3-5-7 in competition? That in such tournaments, whole territories in the West, the North and the Center will not have the slightest chance, in spite of their efforts?

In the words of a party you may know: “Competition is one of the engines of research. But exacerbating it, as the government is doing, is counter-productive. Instead of the systematic and permanent competition that’s being imposed… the accent will be on cooperation.”

Today, I am convinced that the staff of your academic institutions expect the following from you: aid for survival, in the first place, but most of all political support in reconstructing the academic system on a new basis, rather than playing the game of its gravediggers.

Please accept, Monsieur le Président, etc.

Henri Audier

I love the tropes of death, of “gravedigging,” of “grandiose stupidity” and “demolition” and anti-democracy, of fraud. We see in letters like this a whole moral universe of indignation, of hostile critique, of political opposition. We see that university politics arouse real anger, an anger irreducible to any simplistic rational calculus, an anger stemming from the fact that people really get attached to their university systems. The institution of a competitive grant process is likened to the irrationalism of a lottery.

My guess is that Audier’s use of this kind of rhetoric of anger is, while no doubt personally felt, also a political tactic. The question—one which could only be answered through empirical research—is: is it successful?