The world war of the intellect

A snippet from my dissertation chapter on the French university strike of 2009.

Nicholas Sarkozy was elected President of the Republic on May 6, 2007, and took office on May 16. He appointed Valérie Pécresse, a legislator and former UMP spokeswoman, as Minister of Research and Higher Education, and on May 18th, at a meeting of the Conseil des Ministres (Council of Ministers), officially assigned her to lead a reform of university autonomy. Such a reform had already been widely discussed during the presidential campaign, attracting support from Sarkozy, the Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal, and the centrist MoDem candidate François Bayrou. They differed, of course, on policy details. Royal emphasized a “national framework” that preserved more of a role for the French state, and for permanent institutional funding, particularly for research. Sarkozy, according to Le Monde, “wanted to go faster,” shifting research funding and universities alike towards a contract-based, short-term model. But policy differences and political tempos aside, there was a widespread public discourse on the necessity of university reform. “This [traditional university] system worked in its time, but the world has changed”: such was one fairly typical formulation that had appeared in Le Figaro earlier that year, in an op-ed by Vincent Berger, a French physicist active in university governance who later became president of the University of Paris-7 in 2009. In the face of globalized economic competition, Berger explained, “our country must maintain competitive and triumphant industries,” and he argued for closer links between research and industrial production, along with a better “equation” [adéquation] between economic demand and university supply.

The frequency of such arguments in political discourse would give the Sarkozy administration a powerful naturalizing argument for its university reforms, a chance to ally itself with the spirit of its time. Pécresse, as we will see, would frequently cast her reforms as a matter of obvious, objective necessity. But at the same time, there was a discourse of urgency and immediacy about the process. The Sarkozy administration wanted to put in place a number of major state reforms, dealing with everything from the university to labor regulations and criminal laws; and this multiplicity would be amplified by a very rapid governmental timeline.  “We’ll do all the reforms at the same time, and not one after the other,” Sarkozy remarked at the  May 18th meeting of his Conseil des Ministres. The Sarkozy government was also deeply committed to a particular fiscal policy, one typically called “austerity” by its opponents. State spending was to be cut; 50% of retiring state workers were not supposed to be replaced; and national debt was supposed to decrease. Even in such a moment, though, the university and research sector was slated for budget increases. It was said to be the government’s “primary fiscal priority.”

Still, it was generally understood that university reforms, whatever their fiscal and political priority, were a fraught topic. “Even if the chosen moment seems favorable,” remarked an editorialist in Le Figaro, “Valérie Pécresse will have to show great conviction and determination to succeed in such a sensitive subject. Numerous projects, for decades, have been abandoned or emptied of their content, so tenacious are the resistances, so much are they nourished by dogmatism.” In an initial effort to prevent discord, Prime Minister Fillon initially gave assurances that the two most controversial topics, selective admissions (termed “sélection”) and tuition hikes, would not be included in the reform. In spite of this, as Pécresse began official ministerial consultations at the end of the month, however, academic unions were already voicing concerns about the temporality of haste that the government was so attached to.

Thus on May 25th Bruno Julliard, the president of UNEF (the largest student union), would “deplore the short time allowed for negotiations.” The Prime Minister, nevertheless, announced that the university reform would be taken up by Parliament that July. Soon thereafter, the Intersyndicale issued an official communiqué attacking the speed of the reform: “The chosen calendar permits neither a debate about the contents and priorities of a university reform, nor a genuine negotiation with the university community. The signatory organizations [of the intersyndicale] solemnly demand that the law not be hastily submitted during the next special session of Parliament this July.” Pécresse nevertheless continued on the official calendar, calling a meeting of the National Council of Research and Higher Education (CNESER) to review her reform proposals on June 22nd. To her surprise, perhaps, after seven hours of debate, her proposed reform was rejected by the assembled representatives of the university community.

The CNESER possessed considerable legitimacy, since it included representatives from all the major academic unions and from the prominent Conference of University Presidents. It made for media drama, therefore, when the presidents of the largest faculty and student unions, SNESup and UNEF, walked out of the room in frustration. The SNESup president called it “rash” (réforme à la hussarde); his UNEF counterpart termed it an “impending crisis — in my opinion serious.” Pécresse managed to smile for the cameras, saying that she remained optimistic and that the CNESER is only a “consultative body” (une instance consultative). Sarkozy, however, rapidly invited the union representatives to private meetings at the Elysée, and the government made rapid, though ultimately not fundamental, concessions. A proposal to introduce selective admissions at the master’s level was withdrawn, and a proposal to cut the size of universities’ administrative councils was scaled back somewhat. UNEF declared victory on these points (selective undergraduate admissions was said to be a “casus belli” for them), and the government, having quelled some of the earliest dissent, introduced the proposed law in the French legislature soon afterwards, on July 4th.

The next day, Sarkozy and Fillon released an official letter to Pécresse that spelled out the parameters of her ministerial reform mission. It stands as the best official statement of Sarkozy’s vision of university temporality.

At an hour when a worldwide battle of the intellect is underway, it is imperative that France should reform its system of research and higher education, to bring it to the highest global level. At the same time, it must put an end to the unacceptable shambles [gâchis] constituted by university dropout rates [l’échec universitaire], and by the inadequacy of many academic programs to the needs of the job market.

As Minister of Research and Higher Education, you are charged with a mission of the absolutely highest importance within the government and for France. Your objective must be to remedy the state of our research and of our system of higher education, and to rapidly lead more high school graduates into higher education, more college students towards degrees, and more college graduates towards employment.

At this summer’s special legislative session, you will present Parliament with a proposed law that will reform university governance, and allow them to secure new capabilities and new responsibilities within a period of five years at most. In every country in the world, academic success depends upon the universities’ broad freedom to recruit their teachers and researchers, to adjust their compensation and improve their situation, to plan their educational programs, to optimize the use of their facilities, to establish institutional partnerships. The universities’ access to these new responsibilities, in the framework of a modernized relationship with the State, will go along with supplementary funding.

…We consider that the mission incumbent upon you is among the most important and the most urgent for the future of our country.

A l’heure où s’engage une bataille mondiale de l’intelligence, il est impératif que la France réforme son système d’enseignement supérieur et de recherche pour le porter au meilleur niveau mondial. Elle doit parallèlement mettre fin à l’inacceptable gâchis que représentent l’échec universitaire et l’inadéquation de nombreuses filières d’enseignement supérieur aux besoins du marché du travail.

En tant que ministre de l’enseignement supérieur et de la recherche, vous êtes investie d’une mission absolument prioritaire au sein du gouvernement et pour la France. Votre objectif doit être de redresser l’état de notre recherche et de notre système d’enseignement supérieur et de conduire rapidement plus de bacheliers vers l’enseignement supérieur, plus d’étudiants vers le diplôme, plus de diplômés vers l’emploi.

Dès la session extraordinaire de cet été, vous présenterez au Parlement un projet de loi réformant la gouvernance des universités et leur permettant d’accéder à de nouvelles compétences et à de nouvelles responsabilités dans un délai maximum de cinq ans. Dans tous les pays du monde, la réussite universitaire repose sur une plus grande liberté des universités pour recruter leurs enseignants et leurs chercheurs, moduler leurs rémunérations et revaloriser leur situation, choisir leurs filières d’enseignement, optimiser l’utilisation de leurs locaux, nouer des partenariats. L’accès des universités à ces nouvelles responsabilités s’accompagnera, dans le cadre d’une relation modernisée avec l’Etat, de moyens supplémentaires.

…Nous considérons que la mission qui vous incombe est parmi les plus importantes et les plus urgentes pour l’avenir de notre pays.

The letter would also enumerate a number of concrete policy objectives, including a shift to contract-based research funding, the pursuit of “excellence” and world rankings for a select number of campuses, the improvement of student life, and the general Sarkozyist project of scrutinizing state budgets. It even proposed a curious incarnation of audit culture at the summit of the state apparatus: the Minister was asked to propose indicators by which the success of her own policies would be measured and assessed (cf. Strathern 2000). But what is important for our understanding of the protest movement that followed is the government’s striking image of the threatened, yet urgent future of the nation, which gave the proposed reforms the broadest possible ideological rationale.

A worldwide battle of the intellect is under way. Such was the premise of this neoliberal futurism. It upended the placid ideological image of a “knowledge society,” so familiar from European policy rhetoric (cf. French and Anglophone sources), and recast it in the form of a military confrontation between opposed, competitive, competing “intelligences.” While for Vincent Berger, universities and research were necessary inputs in France’s economic performance on the world market, for Sarkozy and Fillon, the images of world battle and international economic warfare were displaced into the interior of the academic world itself. The adduced evidence for the government’s vision of intense international competition was – predictably – largely quantitative. Sarkozy was fond of quoting a statistic that French academics published only half as much as their European counterparts, and policymakers often cited the poor performance of French universities in the Shanghai world university rankings. These classifications were themselves eminently contestable, as critics pointed out (cite), but it was ultimately beside the point to evaluate the empirical evidence for a “worldwide battle of the intellect.” Like any other ideological frame, its function was less to process empirical facts than to assert an a priori vision of the world and to rationalize a political strategy.

In fact, this grandiose discourse had a double ideological function and a double temporality: at once ideological and practical, its affirmative futurity was also a critique of the present. On an ideological level, it worked to establish a set of givens, to set up a framework of institutional perception, and to craft a discourse of historical necessity. Thus we find that Sarkozy’s letter employed a powerful rhetoric of impersonal, almost objective obligation: “It is imperative”; “it must”; “academic success depends upon…” Pécresse’s mission was claimed to be “the most important and the most urgent for the future of our country.” That, in this discourse, seemed to be the highest and most urgent task thing could possibly be envisioned, a sort of absolute summit of ideological projection and compulsion. At the same time, however, this discourse justified a parliamentary maneuver and a policy apparatus that we have begun to describe; it thus coupled its cosmic aspirations to a clear, immediate, and pragmatic function.

This doubleness was further redoubled at a temporal level. On one hand, it was a manifestly affirmative and positive ideology, invoking a glorious future of being among the global victors, conjuring a sense of progress, modernity and improvement, and beckoning towards a victory that would be simultaneously economic, political and social. It often cloaked itself in the language of “modernization,” a term which was seldom explained but which seemed to index some kind of historical motion towards rationality, instrumental effectiveness, and global institutional similarity. Naturally, this generic modernism served to naturalize and harmonize deeper ideological agendas.

One such agenda was nakedly pro-business — indeed, it aimed to equate the success of business with the success of the nation. Pécresse’s task, we recall, was “to rapidly lead more high school graduates into higher education, more college students towards degrees, and more college graduates towards employment.” In this discourse, which again echoes Berger’s, we see that there is an entirely naturalized link between education and wage labor, one further emphasized by the soothing, parallel structure of the  prosody itself. The other agenda, more narrowly focused on public-sector governance, was a claim about how a certain kind of neoliberal “freedom” was both instrumentally rational and necessary. Universities were to become “free” and “autonomous” in hiring their own faculty, managing their own budgets, and developing their own academic specialties, but, through a typical logic of neoliberal self-governance, this freedom was ultimately only supposed to fulfill the French state’s broader policy objectives. Universities were supposed to differentiate as much as possible, pursuing their own specific forms of “excellence”; this differentiation also presupposed an increasingly homogenous global academic field and increasingly homogenous institutional structures, in a typical case of homogenization through difference (Mazzarella 2004).

And the smooth, opaque, technocratic futurism of this political discourse, with its seamless vision of a university system becoming more competitive and more modern and more rapid, in turn concealed a second temporality, the temporality of a ruthless critique of the present institutional situation. The present French university is an “unacceptable shambles” (un gâchis); it urgently needs a “remedy.” Such a critique of the present was tacitly apparent as well in many of the more seemingly anodine formulations. If for instance the university needed new “capabilities” and “responsibilities,” then in part this implied that such capabilities and responsibilities were currently sorely lacking. If there will be a “modernized relationship with the state,” then tacitly, the current relationship with the state is traditional and obsolete. If “every country in the world” gives its universities managerial autonomy, then France is unfortunately deviating from global best practices. Technocratic futurism was, in short, a medium, maybe even a ruse, for an attack on the present and on the institutional frameworks of 20th century social democracy.

Media coverage around the same time made it apparent that a (neoliberal?) critique of the traditional public sector was crucial to Sarkozy’s university reforms. One segment about the start of Pécresse’s consultation process, which appeared May 31st on Soir 3 Journal, strategically emphasized one university president’s frustration with traditional state structures:

Jean Charles Pomerol, President of the University of Paris-6, a thin, gray-haired Frenchman, who was one of the most eager adherents to Pécresse’s university reforms, gazes out upon new construction work on his campus in central Paris: “If it’s the state, through the intermediary of a public establishment [like a university], that does the work, it’s fair to say that it goes about twice as slowly as if had been handed over to a private company. As soon as there’s a certain sum to spend in the public-sector market, things don’t really work.”

Pomerol: Si c’est l’état, par l’intermédiare d’un établissement public, qui fait les travaux, l’établissement public, on peut dire qu’il va environ deux fois moins vite que si ça avait été délegué à une entreprise privée. Des qu’il y a une certaine somme à dépenser pour faire un marché public, ça fonctionne mal.

In short, the traditional French state, the traditional bureaucracy, was slow; the new, modern, autonomous university, the university of the future, would be fast, enhanced by greater integration with the private sector. Such themes were elaborated by governmental officials as well. Consider for example an interview with Pécresse in early July, just as the university law was being introduced in Parliament:

The interviewer asked about the SNESup’s opposition to the reform, and about the changing role of nationalized disciplinary review in hiring.

I’d respond that eighteen months to hire a faculty member [un enseignant-chercheur], in the French university, is not tolerable any more. Today we’re in a global battle of the intellect. The universities must be responsive, or they must be able to hire the best researchers, the best teachers, when they show up at the campus door. That is, in a few months, and not in a year and a half. So we have to move, we have to reform teacher hiring protocols, faculty hiring protocols. The entire university community has said this to me — I believe that the forces hostile to change should be able to hear the message. We should move quickly, because if we don’t make progress, soon we’ll face competition not only from the Anglo-Saxon universities, but also from the Indian and Chinese universities.

Later, the interviewer asked about the consequences of Sarkozy’s close personal involvement in the reform process.

I believe it’s a stroke of luck for the university, for the reform, that the President is getting personally involved. First of all because he can guarantee the financial resources that will be given to the reform, and because he can guarantee the political will to make progress [bouger]. You know, the forces hostile to change, they’re very strong. They’re very strong within the university. People have been trying to get this reform for twenty years. For twenty years, it’s failed. All my predecessors left their marks on it; I think for me it’s very important to have the President of the Republic’s support, which perhaps was lacking for my predecessors.

We can see here that the government’s neoliberal futurism served as the vehicle for a political attack on two kinds of slowness. Firstly, there was the slowness of the traditional, inefficient state bureaucracy, the sort of organization that normally took 18 months to hire a new faculty member, that built new buildings “twice as slowly” as the private sector. Elsewhere in the interview, Pécresse would advocate new university foundations and alumni giving, complaining that it would be “ideological” to impose a barrier between public and private sector money, but she also sounded the predictable theme of fiscal discipline, insisting that money given out without an “objective” (objectif) is “going to be lost in the rain, the sands of the beach.” It was as if traditional (and perennially underfinanced) French universities were bound to waste money by their very nature. Pécresse thus pictured the university reform as a means of introducing a modern, vital haste into the university, of introducing new efficiencies and flexibilities that would put an end to wasted money and raise the university to new heights.

But there was also a more agentive, almost malicious force of slowness in this discourse: the “forces hostile to change,” who had apparently managed to prevent reform for the past twenty years. Pécresse would characterize them only in the most nebulous possible terms, but she said enough to set them up as the enemy. Indeed, they were both her personal opponent and the opponent of something like abstract historical necessity itself — the opponents of what what we “have to” do to win the “global battle of the intellect.” If the government thus sought to win the battle of the intellect and thereby to secure a competitive future for the French nation, then this battle would be won against enemies who were not only outside, like China and India, but also within. Inevitably, perhaps, in the face of her abstractly antagonistic framing of the situation, certain concrete groups within the French university would come forth to announce themselves as her enemy. But, as we will now see, the first move of this opposition was to turn the government’s temporality of neoliberal futurism on its head.