By Alissa Kruidenier
“We can understand the debate between political theories in modern times,” once wrote a brilliant man, “as a debate about whether men should build political institutions to fit human nature or rather political institutions should be built in order to change human nature.” The dichotomy seems negligible in the practical world, a pedantic assertion over the purpose of government. Should we encourage institutions crafted for who we are, or instead those formulated to change them?
I met the brilliant man behind the prompt with the idea of change roiling in my eighteen-year-old head, intensely focused not on Marx or Rousseau, but on college applications. I wanted, I proclaimed to the man and woman on the other side of my Skype interview, to go to France. I wanted the experience; I wanted an institution to mold me into a global citizen, broadened in viewpoint and seasoned in the shifting politics of our generation. Listening to my decision to pick a university not for myself but for what I could become, the man with the thick French accent smiled calmly, fingers weaved in front of him and head bobbing emphatically.
He greeted my assertions like an old acquaintance, and when my admissions offer arrived I remembered that interview, the way he had utterly reinforced everything I had hoped for in a university experience. Months later at Sciences Po Reims, I would bring that moment up again and again to friends – “Really, when you think about it, it’s Ruchet’s fault I’m here in the first place, so whatever mess I make of myself is technically his fault.”
At this point, I should note that there were innumerable messes. Choosing to be changed against the grain of your very nature is jarring, alternating between snaps of incredulity and loss of self-faith. Sciences Po delivered on its promise: an international community, a paradigm shift, and an unyielding lack of tolerance in policy for young women far from home.
Two months in, my grandmother began slowly dying from heart-wrenching, malignant cancer, her youngest granddaughter able only to watch over a Skype screen as the vibrancy of her life faded. I skipped my classes, I couldn’t eat, I asked all my friends to not speak to me or touch me. The emails poured in from the administration, reminding me of my absences and calmly asserting that one’s dying grandmother is not one of the Paris administration’s categories for an excused absence.
The institution I had picked to change me was as unyielding as I could have hoped for, and I was crumbling with the need to find something, anything, to adapt to my situation. With my assured academic failure in sight, I turned to the man who I had charged with my presence on campus. Like the critical situations of so many other students, Ruchet never claimed ignorance or incapability of policy; when faced with a school who expects uniform compliance, he brought the kind of ingenuity and genuine kindness needed to ensure that students are able to carry on.
Like many students before and after me, I was picked back up and dusted off by the man who had encouraged me to come here, the institution adapting for one crucial moment to my needs. One year later, after responding to my Political Theory prompts adequately enough to gain admission into my second year of university, he was my professor in Women in Western Political Thought. The class was exceptional in both material and instruction, the kind of brilliant and succinct guidance so absent from far too many of Sciences Po’s “professors” – usually PhD students barely older than many of those they teach.
We were taught to question, to pay lip service and respect while sharpening the daggers of criticism. So I sat towards the middle of the classroom, cracking pistachios and incessantly sarcastic comments, tolerated by Olivier Ruchet, a man who still insisted in seeing the critical potential and scholarly value of each of us. He was the ace in any student’s pocket, the figure who could walk a line between leniency and encouragement of change.
But this is about far more than me, and far more than even Mr. Ruchet. In a university which has the alarming tendency to treat its diverse population of students like commodities, molds for an image being constantly rehashed and rehearsed, there remains the distinct threat that it will become too focused on change to remember to respect our inherent natures. This danger has arguably been realized, by removing the man who many of us saw as a pillar of administrative competence, a man who would breeze about campus with his espresso and iconic New Balance sneakers to ask you personally how you were feeling.
Thanks to the brilliant man who once forced me to contemplate the nature of political institutions, I sit in my room at Columbia University, gripped by sadness, with disappointment in our administration. To be told a man who once valued you so much is no longer welcome in the vision of Sciences Po Reims is like being told I myself no longer am either.
Yet I saw Madame Jacquet a week ago, at a charity gala in New York, and she greeted me like a long-lost daughter, claiming Reims was exactly the place it had been upon my departure. I was presented, a student chosen and developed by Monsieur Ruchet, to businessmen and potential donors, and was happy to speak of my experiences, how I had been able to find a home in the system, once I had found a grain of leniency. I had hoped I would see Monsieur Ruchet there, to thank him for every moment of faith and support he has given so many of us, but he was absent in more ways than I understood at the time.
Where is the line drawn between institutional policies shaped to our diverse, international nature, and those created with the direct purpose of changing and modifying it? I think I’m at odds with the young girl who Skyped with Monsieur Ruchet two years ago, but have read far too many political theorists to find an unambiguous answer. As I sit reminiscing about old, excruciating prompts, I will be forever grateful to the professor who didn’t bat an eye whenever I burst informally into his office, or baked cookies for my presentation on the modern housewife. I hope there will be an institution which can appreciate both his brilliance and resilience, and utterly regret that the one he invited me to commit to was unable to achieve even this.