Jean Chambaz's spacious 21st-floor corner office provides a sweeping panorama of the tranquil Parisian landscape, its tree-lined boulevards punctuated by the spires and domes of familiar landmarks like Notre Dame and Sacré-Coeur.
But for Mr. Chambaz, vice president for research at the University of Paris VI (Pierre et Marie Curie), the terrain beneath the glass tower at Jussieu, a Modernist campus that houses several higher-education and research institutions, is seething with change.
Higher education in France is in the throes of its most profound restructuring in generations. The country's 83 universities are being granted autonomy, severing the direct authority of the central government over how they run their affairs.
The organizing of scientific research, which has taken place primarily under the auspices of groups such as the National Center for Scientific Research, known as CNRS, and the National Institute of Health and Medical Research, or Inserm, is being reconceptualized, with universities at the center of the new system.
The government of President Nicolas Sarkozy has also pledged billions of euros in new financing for higher education and, through a program called Operation Campus, is pouring money into the creation of 10 regional supercampuses intended to serve as centers of excellence that will eventually rival American institutions like Harvard and MIT.
Even as other European countries are slashing financing for higher education, France has in the past year announced huge sums destined to benefit universities and research institutions. About half of the $55-billion the government plans to raise through a project known as the grand emprunt, or big loan, will be devoted to higher education.
The goal is nothing less than an overhaul of France's higher-education system, with profound implications for those who study, teach, conduct research, and work within it.
"It's a cultural revolution for us," says Mr. Chambaz.
The frenetic pace and broad scope of the efforts are a direct reflection of the hyperactive style and sweeping ambitions of President Sarkozy, who has been unsparing in his criticism of French universities and unabashed about his intention to remake them along distinctly non-Gallic lines.
Generations of French business and political leaders have been produced not by the country's university system, but by its parallel system of grandes écoles, or big schools. While some are quite prestigious, they enroll a tiny fraction of French students and are not the primary target of the reform efforts.
Unlike most of his predecessors and colleagues, Mr. Sarkozy is a graduate of a university, not a grande école, giving him personal insight into the shortcomings of a system that he is determined to transform.
Bernard Belloc, a former president of the University of Toulouse I (Social Sciences), is Mr. Sarkozy's adviser for higher education. Although a former vice president of the national Conference of University Presidents, he too is unequivocal in his harsh assessment of French higher education.
A Wake-Up Call
Mr. Belloc and many others, including both supporters and critics of the government's plans, trace the inspiration for the current flurry of reform to the advent of international university rankings and France's relatively poor performance on them.
Shanghai Jiao Tong University's Academic Ranking of World Universities, the first and best known of the international rankings, began in 2003. The highest-ranking French university, the University of Paris VI (Pierre et Marie Curie), has hovered around 40th place for several years.
Although its methodology was immediately attacked, Shanghai served as a wake-up call, Mr. Belloc says, forcing the French to confront the uncomfortable fact that their universities are not considered world-class.
As in other European systems, the defining ethos for French universities has been egalitarianism, with institutions largely indistinguishable from one another in terms of mission and institutional profile. They have had little say over admission, which is open to all students who pass the qualifying baccalauréat exam. Most students choose where to enroll based largely on an institution's proximity to home.
Indeed, most French universities are known not by names but simply by the city in which they are based, followed by a numeral if they are one of several.
That lack of differentiation is reflected in the common linguistic convention of speaking of "the University," as though there were a single institution for all of France, rather than of individual universities.
The Shanghai ranking called into question this uniformity and unleashed a French emphasis on—many say an obsession with—fostering excellence.
"Our primary objective is clear," says Mr. Belloc. "It is to foster the emergence of research-intensive institutions of excellence."
The Sarkozy government's first major attempt at changing universities was to grant them autonomy. Under the new system, university presidents have much more say over finances and personnel matters, including setting pay and awarding performance-based bonuses.
This new concentration of power in a single person is at the root of much of critics' unhappiness.
As of the start of this year, 51 universities had become autonomous, and all are scheduled to achieve that status by the beginning of 2012.
Simone Bonnafous is president of the University of Paris-Est Créteil Val de Marne and vice president of the Conference of University Presidents, which represents all French universities. The new authority that individual institutions now enjoy, especially over budget and salary issues, has been liberating and is a long-awaited sign of "real progress," she says. She acknowledges that there has been grumbling, even among some presidents, and attributes much of the opposition to the government's right-of-center orientation. "If another government had introduced these changes, it wouldn't have produced the same resistance," she says.
For Mr. Chambaz's university, becoming officially autonomous at the beginning of 2009, in the first group of 18 universities to do so, represented an official seal of approval for the direction in which Paris VI's independent-minded administration was already headed.
"Even before autonomy, we were fighting for it," Mr. Chambaz says. Until the change took place, "we were only the postal box to transmit what was decided by the ministry."
Now, he says, the administration can control where the money goes. For example, the university has increased spending on research into emerging technologies from one million to five million euros, or more than $6-million, because it was deemed an institutional priority.
Financing still comes largely from the government, but that, too, is changing.
As part of its goal of fostering a competitive, results-oriented outlook, the government has tied its allocations of public money more closely to institutional performance. It is also encouraging universities to pursue external sources of income.
"We have had to change our mentality to work more closely with private companies," says Vincent Lamande, vice director of the technology-transfer office for a network of four universities in Brittany and president of the C.U.R.I.E. network, an association of university technology-transfer officers.
Universities are also involved in the creation of start-up companies, he says, and are setting up private foundations, often in partnership with industry.
For critics of the government's ambitions, and there are many, this new preoccupation with generating income is a troubling indication of where the government's plans could be headed.
The American higher-education model is explicitly cited as the inspiration for the new breed of research-intensive universities of excellence, and critics fear that American-style privatization and tuition levels cannot be far behind.
Laurence Giavarini is a professor of French literature at the University of Bourgogne and a spokeswoman for the group Let's Save the University, which says it has the support of a majority of academics, has campaigned vociferously against every step of the changes of the past few years.
"The entire French university system is under attack," says Ms. Giavarini. "We're not talking about small reforms at the margins. This is a complete disruption of the system."
She argues that the system has been collegial and democratic and, while flawed, fully functional in a way that an artificially imposed Anglo-Saxon model would never be.
"Autonomy is the disengagement of the state from the university," she says, calling the results of the first wave disastrous:
"This is creating a lot of competition between colleagues, some of whom are now having to teach much more, and others who are having to do more research, and it is creating a lot of inequality."
Ms. Giavarini cites the experience of her university, a regional institution of about 27,000 students.
Bourgogne is forming partnerships with other regional universities in what she dismisses as a purely meaningless exercise to achieve critical mass, creating an institution of more than 50,000 students.
"This enlarging of French universities is just to make them go up in international rankings" but has nothing to do with quality or administrative flexibility, she says.
Ms. Bonnafous's university, in Paris, with 32,000 students, has also formed partnerships with other institutions, including grandes écoles, as part of the creation of "clusters of research and higher education," and the results have been transformative, she says, especially at the level of doctoral education. "To be able to have our labs and doctoral school all working together, this has elevated the quality of research," she says, acknowledging that the effort is an explicit attempt to drive French universities up the rankings tables.
Alain Trautmann, another vocal critic, argues that the previous system, while imperfect, functioned well for France.
Mr. Trautmann is an immunologist at the Cochin Institute, the biomedical-research arm of Inserm. His 14-member lab team is based at the Cochin Institute and is financed by Inserm, the CNRS, and the University of Paris V (Descartes).
The classically French mixed approach to research, centered around the national research organizations instead of universities, has produced high-quality science, he says, in a way that individual universities cannot hope to do.
Despite all the talk of excellence and fostering competitiveness, Mr. Trautmann thinks there are more-sinister motivations behind the government's objectives.
"They want to destroy the CNRS," he says, because the organization has become too powerful a counterpoint to the ministry of higher education and research.
For him, even the government's plan to invest large new sums in the construction of supercampuses, focused on research and science, is suspect.
"Part of the deal," he says, "is that this will be very profitable for the people who build these campuses."
Mr. Trautmann says many French academics find the myriad government programs confusing.
"If you ask any number of colleagues, many will say they simply don't understand what is going on—everything is changing so rapidly," he says. "Most people in the field are just trying to survive and adapt to the new realities that others have decided for them."
Even advocates of the reforms express some confusion about where things stand.
Mr. Lamande, the tech-transfer officer from Brittany, says that while overlapping efforts, including university autonomy, the creation of clusters of excellence for higher education and research, and the big loan, have provided opportunities for generating income and forging partnerships, they have also been perplexing.
This year will bring something like 15 different opportunities to bid on projects in higher education, campuses of excellence, and tech transfer, says Mr. Lamande, his voice trailing off as he mentally ticks through the list. "It's complicated even for us."
Mr. Chambaz, who thinks the potential dividends are enormous, agrees that it has been difficult at times for universities to keep pace with the changes.
Even before all French universities have transitioned to autonomy, the landscape has begun to shift again, with the new emphasis on campuses of excellence and clusters of universities.
"The government is thinking of modifying the governance of these clusters when universities have not even had time to set up their new models of autonomy," he says.
"They have even created new kinds of networks. They gave autonomy to the universities and told the national institutes of research to work better with the universities, and we started that. But at the same time they are still creating networks to bridge labs independently, both inside and outside of universities."
The revolution in French higher education is well under way, and while he embraces its goals, Mr. Chambaz is concerned that, like an earlier French revolution, it doesn't lose its way.
"They had a good political line, which was to strengthen the role of universities in structuring higher education and research in France, and most of the initiatives they are doing now are just making more confusion in the system," he says. "We warn them as much as we can to be cautious that the results don't jeopardize the reforms they started."