President Nicolas Sarkozy of France has infuriated a key part of the country’s higher-education establishment with the tone of a speech he delivered last Thursday on France’s national strategy for research and innovation.
Calling the country’s higher-education system ill-adapted to the challenges of knowledge and growth in the 21st century, Mr. Sarkozy said France trailed other industrialized nations in research and innovation because “too often we have retreated from the necessity of reforming our universities and research institutions.”
Mr. Sarkozy was unsparing in his description of a system his government has already done much to reform, calling it an “infantilizing system” of “weak universities” that paralyzes creativity and innovation. By granting universities greater autonomy in hiring and in managing their finances, beginning with a law that took effect on January 1, Mr. Sarkozy said that the government had done nothing original.
“Autonomy is the rule” for all countries with competitive universities, he said, and “there is not a single example in the world of great universities that are not autonomous.”
More recently, the government moved to revise a law governing the hiring and promotion of researchers engaged in teaching, a step that would allow universities to dictate how those staff members allocate their time between teaching and other activities. A statement from the Conference of University Presidents called the change “a necessity.”
Far from being assuaged by Mr. Sarkozy’s acknowledgment that “the immense majority of teaching researchers do their jobs with admirable devotion to our universities,” the spokesman for the protest group Sauvons la Recherche (literally, “Let’s Save Research”) called the president’s speech shameful, saying it consisted of “lies and insults.”
Along with Sauvons l’Université (literally, “Let’s Save the University”), the group has called for supporters to respond to “the contempt the head of state has demonstrated in our regard” by taking to the streets in protest on February 2. —Aisha Labi