The Real Legacy of Richard Descoings

Richie is dead.

Richard Descoings – known as Richie to the Sciences-Po community, the school he headed for the past 16 years – died unexpectedly in New York yesterday. As an alumna of Sciences-Po, I first heard about this through messages and emails from former classmates last night. Even in the middle of the night in France, friends of mine were going to Sciences-Po to pay their respects to Mr. Descoings, posting messages on Facebook and Twitter, sharing their sorrow and mourning as a community.

Richard Descoings will be remembered for his passion and his ideals, for having brought Sciences-Po into the 21st century.

Sciences-Po – otherwise known as the Insitute d’Etudes Politiques – has been a bastion of French elitism for decades, an obligatory “rite of passage” for anyone hoping to exercise a high function in the French government. Under Mr. Descoings’ leadership, the school saw a wave of transformative reforms that opened it up to the world: the creation of paths for students from the “ZEP” (Zones d’Education Prioritaire) or, in plain English marginalized schools in poor or minority communities; bringing thousands of students from foreign countries to study at Sciences-Po; or providing opportunities for a study abroad year.

His reforms helped open the doors of France’s most prestigious university to traditionally overlooked communities. For the first time, Sciences-Po is training people who aren’t part of the economic and political elites.  This could translate into greater diversity in leadership positions in the political and business worlds, something which France sorely needs.

Descoings was also no stranger to controversy, and not everyone in the Sciences-Po community welcomed his constant hunger for change and evolution. In spite of this, he was nevertheless widely respected as a reformer, and though he was often considered for government positions, he remained focused on Sciences-Po, the school which now bears his indelible mark.

From my perspective, it’s clear that a majority of people in the Sciences-Po community are deeply saddened by this loss. People have been gathering at the main campus in Paris over the last 24 hours to mourn together, to leave a flower, a note or light a candle. Many others have changed their profile picture to the school’s insignia with a superimposed black sash. President Nicolas Sarkozy, cabinet ministers, high ranking officials, business leaders and artists have all come out with sympathetic words to remember Richards Descoings.

His tragic death will certainly leave a huge reform-shaped hole in the heart of French higher education.

– To read an alumnus’ memorial note on Richard Descoings, click here (in French).