The Story of a Vacataire

By Isabelle de Courtivron

After a long academic career on the East Coast of the USA (Wellesley, Brown, Harvard, MIT), and having retired in Paris, I decided to continue to teach part-time in order to maintain contact with eager young minds.  So six years ago I chose Sciences Po– out of admiration for Richard Descoings’ vision– and Sciences Po/Reims because I was impressed by Olivier Ruchet’s intellectual, pedagogical and personal qualities.

The first year the campus opened there were about 80 students.  The classrooms, library, offices were temporary. For everyone, the learning curve was high.  However, the atmosphere was high as well!  Despite the complexities of building the first version of the large and internationally recognized campus that it has become, it was a heady enterprise.  Student organizations were rapidly and energetically put in place, a student journal and numerous other projects were created, all of which came under the purview of Olivier Ruchet who encouraged, advised, and supported  both the educational side as well as the extra-curricular activities.  I believe that this early foundation is what gave this campus its long-term direction and has been responsible for its exceptional nature: a place where the solidarity, the energy and the mixture of intellectual endeavors and political, social and artistic events have found a harmonious balance and offered an enlightened complementarity.  I often boasted to friends and interlocutors that this campus was unique in that it combined the best of American and French academic institutions.

Along with Nathalie Jaquet’s more external responsibilities, which she handled with elegance and vigor, Olivier Ruchet represented the intellectual and pedagogical side of this felicitous duo. He was a rigorous teacher, an efficient academic administrator and a superb mentor to students.

I don’t quite know how he found the time to do it all because he seemed indefatigable.  Olivier traveled frequently and enticed the best international students to Reims. He taught large classes, and created subjects both traditional (i.e. in the best Sciences Po tradition) and innovative. Yet he would respond to e-mails immediately whether on week-ends or late at night.  He consistently demonstrated interest in all of the classes taught on campus, and he was unfailingly concerned about students’ welfare. Whenever I felt that a young man or woman was in trouble, his first response was: “Please send him/her to me, I will discuss all of this and see if I can help.”  In the meantime, he enriched an existing curriculum so that it too combined the best European and American approaches, in the case of the latter, whether this was in instituting gender studies or encouraging humanities classes like my own (which, through literature and film, addressed topics such as immigration or trans-culturalism). In my classes, for example (but there are many others), students who were engaged in demanding lecture classes in law or economics also found themselves discussing animatedly the works of Virginia Woolf , Ta-Nehisi Coates or Fatih Akin.

Olivier was also a welcome friend to all the « vacataires », these mostly anonymous and dedicated part-time teachers who make up the large majority of the teaching staff at Sciences-Po.  Some are 25 and writing a thesis, others are 65 and have had a prestigious career; most of them are sorely underpaid and generally ignored by the Institute. Without them, the entire campus would shut down. Olivier, who recognized this state of affairs, spent a great deal of time hiring, helping and advising these highly qualified teachers, and he made us all feel like an important part of the collective enterprise when no one else did. Every semester he held long sessions to provide the information we would need and he patiently handled our many questions; he knew all of us by name and when someone encountered a crisis he was the first to find a humane solution.  At no time did these solutions damage the educational mission, even if it meant that he himself would replace a person’s class until the crisis was resolved.

I write all of this in the past with a mixture of great sadness and clear anger.  For all of the reasons outlined above and many more that are too long to list, I was baffled, shocked, then simply outraged, by his abrupt and unjustified dismissal. As I have mentioned above, one of Olivier’s many qualities include compassion. This cannot be said of the shameful manner in which he was let go, which included a series of reprehensible and humiliating actions that are contrary to every academic value we hold dear; actions that are not worthy of an institution that considers itself an exemplar.

I would therefore like to request in the strongest possible way that the decision to fire Olivier Ruchet as Director of the European-American Program in Reims be reconsidered and revoked.

I realize that I have the freedom that others teachers (vacataires) may not have, and that it is probably easier for me to state unequivocally that I will never again teach on a campus whose institutional leadership is capable of this sort of ingratitude, of such an egregious lack of collegiality and respect for its best representatives, and of the brutality, injustice and secrecy of its recent actions taken against Olivier Ruchet.

Isabelle de Courtivron

MIT, Professor Emerita,

Friedlaender Chair in the Humanities at MIT, Emerita

Director of the Global Studies and Language Department from 2000 to 2010.

« Vacataire » at Sciences Po/ Reims since 2010

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