This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity purposes.
Interview conducted by Maria Lee, Ava Luquet and Jurek Wille
General questions on Sciences Po and the #SciencesPorcs movement
TSP: To get started, what is your reaction to the resignation of President Mion?
Tilman Turpin: Well, I have two reactions. A professional and a personal one. Professionally, given the situation and the preliminary report of the inspection of the Ministry of Higher Education pointing to a series of “errors of judgement”, his resignation is the logical consequence – at this point the report points to individual errors on his side rather than institutional failures. I think it is a necessary and good step to find a new starting point for the institution. This puts the institution in a difficult situation. We don’t have a president, we don’t have a director. We have an interim president, Louis Schweitzer, and an interim administrator, Bénédicte Durand, who I have been working with for the last six years. I know her professionalism, so I know on that side we are in good hands. Personally, I have been working with Mion since 2013 and I know his many human and professional qualities. I will regret losing the person I have been working with on an everyday basis. We were not very close, obviously, he is the president of the institution, but when I had the occasion of working with him it was always very fluid and very clear. I know his engagement for the institution as well. It was he who created the “cellule de veille” (helpline) in 2015 and I know that questions of gender equality were always on his agenda, although I know that it is difficult during these times to hear that and recognize what he has done in the past.
TSP: How do you and how does the institution of Sciences Po define sexual violence?
Turpin: Every definition or evaluation we make is bound to French law. We, as an institution, cannot create definitions outside of the legal framework, and no institution in France can do so.
TSP: We have recently been hearing stories that have come out regarding students reporting sexual assault cases across Sciences Po campuses. What is your reaction to those stories we have been hearing and to the #SciencesPorcs movement?
Turpin: I have been working for Sciences Po since 2009. I have been campus director since 2013 on two campuses, Poitiers and Reims, and before that I worked in the central administration, and before that I was a student and a teacher [since 2003]. And obviously it’s tough hearing these things. I do think there is a silence on many sides, on the victim’s side first of all. I have never been a person to say that these things do not exist. Sciences Po is a reflection of society in general, a specific reflection, so I don’t think that the institution is out of space and time concerning events in society. I think that is a good thing, because it helps to create more and more awareness and gives the possibility to the victims to speak up. It also puts the institutions in a position to do more than we have done up until now.
TSP: Most of the testimonies we have been hearing in the past weeks are actually about Sciences Po’s reaction and the lack of reaction, rather than the testimonies themselves.
Turpin: Concerning the lack of reaction, everybody is very shocked. It is very difficult on many levels, both personal and institutional.When it comes to time periods, I can talk about Poitiers and Reims from 2013 to 2015 and 2015 to 2021 respectively. I had a look at them, a few of these. They are not dated. There is the one example of someone who was transferred from Poitiers to Reims after having committed sexual assault. But there is no date. I am currently director of the Reims campus and I between 2013 and 2021 have not transferred any students for this kind of behavior. Some of these things are going way up in time, and this is one of the difficulties. As campus director, I have had to deal with a series of questions on sexual assault, sexual violence, rape. I was there when the “cellule” was created in 2015. And I remember very well the first time I was confronted as a campus director by a student coming into my office saying, “I’ve been raped.” The institution was not equipped yet with the tools we have now. Today I know whom I have to call in order for this situation to be taken care of: the “cellule.” The idea is to accompany the victims, on a personal and legal side. These are things that obviously have happened in the past, but I know that the way of dealing with them has been very much professionalized over time. I’m not saying that the process is perfect, but it does work when students come up and see us. If they don’t, we can’t act. Another problem is when the student concerned does not want to give the name of the person who has assaulted them. And unfortunately, this is a great difficulty, because the victim has to accept two things to go into the disciplinary section – to give their name and the name of the person who has assaulted them. Another problem to talk about is: how do you deal with the period between the moment when an accusation is made, and the end of the process, while a legal process is ongoing outside the institution. You always have a lapse of time where, potentially, you have the victim and the accused aggressor might be in the same place.
TSP: You said earlier that one of the main issues you have when dealing with such situations is that survivors do not name the perpetrators. Don’t you think that this is an institutional shortcoming that the climate on campus does not allow survivors to be brave enough to come forward at any point and trust the institution to be safe?
Turpin: (Pauses). Yes, obviously, but trust is not something you declare, you create it over time. We can only prove by action that students can come and speak up. And again, the process is obviously not perfect.
Sciences Po’s concrete actions
TSP: It’s not just about you declaring that students can come forward and feel safe with you but also about creating a climate amongst students that they know these things are wrong and they can count on other students to support them. Last year, the Fem Society won a grant to set up workshops to teach students what sexual violence, consent, and proper behavior mean. All these things are not supported by the administration. We do not yet have workshops about these things, which other universities implement as mandatory. As an institution, some are already arguing that Sciences Po is doing too little to teach its students what’s wrong, what’s right.
Turpin: We did actually talk about it to the Feminist society and asked them to make a proposal on what they wanted to do. Concerning the second question, the difficulty is also the fact that these kinds of things occur outside the walls of the institution, in private conditions and in student events organized by student associations. There has been a lot of work done over the past years to make sure that student associations integrate the parameter of the potentiality of sexual assault during their events, and to work on the factors that may reduce risks. And that is: alcohol consumption – being aware of how much alcohol can be served, making access to food and water mandatory. We accompany student associations, and if we have to do more on that side, we will. Other Instituts d’Études Politiques are seriously thinking about simply forbidding student associations to organize events, festive events, galas. They consider that this is a solution to reduce risks. There is also a big question: how can we make sure that students come and talk to us? Again, you can do that only if there is a quick answer, in the sense of listening and taking into account. The quick answer cannot be “there is an accusation and we will immediately, definitively, exclude a student because he has been accused.” There is the principle of presumption of innocence until a student has been convicted of something.
TSP: We are all aware of these legal principles and we know that the institution cannot react right away to certain accusations. But what a lot of students are asking administration and the institution to do is not just reacting, but also preventing. And so far, all you have said, is that it’s the shortcoming of the Feminist Society for not proposing adequate measures and that it is through cancelling events and providing meals that you accompany associations.
Turpin: And that is prevention. I went to student parties when you were still in primary school. And I can definitely say that modes of prevention have fundamentally changed. The system is not perfect. There is a necessity for us and for other institutions to rethink the ways of prevention.
TSP: Precisely, isn’t the fact of cancelling events denying the need to educate students, as Sciences Po claims they need to create an “élite de la nation”? Is the way to educate students really to stop them from throwing events, which might become clandestine?
Turpin: I didn’t say we were considering this, on the contrary I think it makes no sense. There are two zones, where these kinds of things happen: in the private sphere, or in events organized by student associations – integration week-end, the “collégiades”, the CRIT, that type of event. The temptation, obviously, is to say “we are banning student events and no longer financing them, because this way there is no more risk”. I think that is ridiculous. We need to accompany student associations, but we can’t be behind everything. We need to responsibilize students, student associations that organize, and teach students when to stop drinking. We should maybe reinforce the accompaniment of associations, reinforce sensibilisation starting from the first year, and remind the second years. Will it be mandatory? The only way we can make it mandatory is through ECTS credits granted by following training and reinforcements of those training. We talk about a vaccine passport, maybe we should think about a “sensibilisation passport” to many things, sexist and sexual violence being one of them. Concretely, on the things to do, a first step is to open a discussion with the feminist associations on campus, to exchange with them and have their input on the situation. Are there many things that aren’t reported? Because if there are things that aren’t reported, I cannot know them. What are the mechanisms that make it so these things aren’t reported if that is the case? To make sure we have all these elements so we can work on the reinforcement of the enforced policies.
[Editors’ note: Since then, the inter-IEP Crit has been cancelled by the administration of all campuses.]
TSP: When we started at Sciences Po, we had one afternoon with Amy Greene who told us what sexual violence is, but that was it. We didn’t have any other workshops with other professionals, we didn’t have a full week. So we are asking you, will you address this issue more seriously in the future, or will you maintain a one-time afternoon session only for incoming students?
Turpin (T. Turpin, who had been speaking in English until then, switches to French in the middle of the answer): Obviously we address this. We are not ostriches, we are not sticking our head in the sand and saying “this is going to pass”. If I told you right now “we’re doing this, this and this”, it would be an off the cuff reaction, close to what certain politicians do. There are things that exist and work very well, and there are certain levers that we need to work more on; speed, availability, the training of students and associations. One of the issues is to have permanent representation of the cellule on campus, not just from time to time. I also know that the institution is setting up a commission with independent and exterior partners – a taskforce – to see where and what has to be done differently, and on which basis. We ask them for very concrete proposals: how should we welcome the 1As next year? How many reminders do we give the 2As? I can tell you, if we don’t make attendance to these meetings about what sexual violence, rape, and the legal framework around it mandatory in one way or another, nobody goes.
TSP: Since you’re talking about reinforcement measures that you would like to implement, in our last interview, you told us that for last year already, you were thinking of workshops throughout the semester, offered to all students “in close collaboration with professionals and academics” as you put it, and you want to do it this year again with Deputy Director Paris. We are already in February, we have not received any information on anything happening and we are wondering whether these seminars are still envisioned or not?
Turpin: Of course you haven’t missed that we have a rather complicated news scene since we came back to school, that monopolizes a lot of energy, even just guaranteeing that the campus stays open and that there are classes. The point was that of racism and discrimination, and we have started discussing with the student assocations that dedicate their time and energy to these matters, and what happened is that they didn’t get back to us and we didn’t get back to them.
I don’t know if you saw, the first conference we did this year was with Pap Ndiaye and a university colleague from Tours about a comparative approach between racism in the US and France. Given the news around the topic, I had figured that LS01 would be, even in Covid conditions, full. No. There were about 35/40 people in the amphitheater and 30 that were following online. The question of how to make this mandatory while still creating the motivation in students to participate is an important one. If we approach this by forcing you to come to these trainings, we know, especially for those that commit this sort of acts, the impact will be null, because they won’t keep up with the class, they simply don’t listen.
T. Turpin’s personal reaction to the testimonies
TSP: We talked earlier about the fact that you are not aware of any case of a student from Poitiers being transferred to Reims, at least in the years that you have been on both campuses. There is also a case that has been reported and is talked about among students about a student from Le Havre being transferred more recently. We wanted to know if you can confirm or deny that this happened and that he was transferred because of accusations of this sort.
Turpin: I obviously cannot give you the reasons for which a student or other students have been transferred from one campus to another. These are matters that concern individual cases. I can tell you that the transfers I have made from and to campuses, and based on the elements I have, there is no case that would’ve been subject to disciplinary action regarding this sort of situation. I, as you, saw that tweet or message. Before we proceed to a transfer, we check with colleagues why we are transferring. I can tell you that there are complicated situations, but in this kind of situation the logic isn’t to transfer a student from one campus to another but rather to think about distancing measures in the sense of forbidding access to campus for a student. Because the legal framework forces us to, as long as a procedure is open, we have to guarantee the accused students access to their classes. The access to classes works, in this case, through online schooling.
TSP: You said that the reasons for which a student would be transferred from one campus to another needed to stay confidential. But when we talk about topics that would potentially endanger other students of the campus to which the student has been transferred, don’t you think this becomes a more problematic subject that should be further discussed?
Turpin: In the transfer cases I have dealt with, they were done because of health matters, familial matters, mental health, language barriers. We do not proceed to transfers to get someone out of a campus because they are dangerous, to put them somewhere else. If someone is dangerous to the community, distancing measures will be taken to make sure that students cannot access campuses as a whole. There can be cases, and that is where the difficulty lies when it comes to social media: we can easily say things that do not correspond to the reality of a case. There is a phase where we try to understand what happened, how we handle those cases, and what decision the institution should make.
TSP: Concretely, are you saying that you are calling into question some testimonies about students being potentially transferred from one Sciences Po campus to another?
Turpin: For the mentioned reasons. Believe me I dug my memory to remember all the cases I have been confronted with. Personally, I cannot say for what happened before in that type of situation – in a context where the institution didn’t have a “cellule de veille” or a determined process to accompany this sort of situation. The main concern is to accompany the victim. We can be confronted to very difficult situations where someone accuses someone else, and there is a presumption of innocence until there is a ruling. I know that’s easy to say and hard to hear, especially for the person that was a victim, and I won’t even mention how slow judiciary penal investigations are – they can take years. But at the same time, this principle is the foundation of our legal system. The difficulty lies in the period of time between an accusation being expressed and the moment a disciplinary decision is made or not. So, obviously, one of the things on which the independent commission – the taskforce – is going to work on is how to make sure that step is accelerated without going into a logic that loses that presumption of innocence. I know feminist associations ask for there to be more intermediary steps, and more communication to the victim. I obviously think this is a good idea. Again, I am not saying the system we have is perfect, but I know it works. There can be, as in any system, individual errors, even collective errors, but the aim of the institution is not to deny these things exist. Some testimonies, on a personal level, absolutely shocked me. For example: “Well people told me then it wouldn’t go anywhere”. I can tell you that, after receiving a certain number of students who came up to me with issues like that, the first reaction is to ask them how they would like for us to accompany them, and, since we have the “cellule”, to seize it. And no, the first reaction is not to say “no, this doesn’t exist, our students are perfect”. No, our students are not perfect. No one is, we are not either. On the contrary, we have to make sure that we manage to hear and support everyone.
TSP: In your recent emails, you have communicated quite clearly that behaviour that is damaging the name of the institution, in this case clandestine parties, will be sanctioned by academic penalties. This discourse has been very present, and is in students’ minds. Why are this discourse and these penalties not equally applied to cases of sexual assault? Why is it not made as clear to students that this behaviour can result in similar quite expedited academic penalties?
Turpin: The reason why I mentioned that article is because it’s the only legal base we have that allows us to prosecute students that are organizing clandestine parties. The institution cannot police you when it comes to what you do on the outside. If you organize a party, you organize a party. I can’t come to knock on your door and tell you “this isn’t allowed” (here, of course I’m talking about events organized outside of the framework of student associations). The sanitary context is exceptional because you don’t have a right to be throwing parties. That type of message is to remind you that you don’t have a right to throw this kind of party and that we can seize the disciplinary section if we consider your behavior is harming the institution.What we refer to in disciplinary pursuits in cases of sexist and sexual violence is to the breach of the “integrity of people and goods”, as the school norms state. The reputation of the school, in that sense, is not what we look at.
Role of Sciences Po in educating students
TSP: As an institution that proclaims to educate “l’élite de la nation”, how much do you think it is your job as academics and teachers to educate those students also about the meaning of ‘sexual behaviour’, ‘sexual consent’ and ‘sexual violence’?
Turpin: We have an important role to play, but we cannot be the only ones to “educate”. Students come to us at a certain age, with a learning process of norms, behaviors, of what one can and cannot do, that is pre existing. It is our responsibility, and we will do it more, more regularly and in a more mandatory, more punctual and precise manner. You don’t have the right to do or say a certain number of things. And that is why I want you to understand that the system is perfectible and will be improved to make sure that the information given is based on French law – as we cannot apply other laws or norms than those authorized by French law. We can contribute to the evolution of those norms. However, and maybe what I’m about to say is a little bit cynical, but I know that some will not hear it and won’t want this education. And that is why no system on this topic is perfect.
TSP: You talked about these testimonies not being dated and your suspicion that they might have happened before your time on campus. Still, some people have been moved around in the past, this is something that we obviously cannot neglect. As campus director, you are in a position to make a statement. Do you think there must be an institutional apology to those survivors of sexual violence, as nothing of the sort has been issued yet?
Turpin: I think you overestimate my capacity to influence institutional decisions in an important manner.On a personal level, I believe that, obviously, if the institution has made errors then, yes, the institution should apologize. If the director asked me to publish a statement of excuse for things that had happened in the past, then obviously I would do so. But I think that this is more about, indeed, an institutional position. I know that the people that are in a position to make these kinds of decisions today are very likely to allow the institution, if it committed mistakes, to recognize them. I know that the institution has that capacity, because it is strong enough. We have a goal to form those who will take decisions in the future (the word “elite” is a little bit criticized right now). This has to be an opportunity to rethink a certain number of things, without betraying the idea of this training – that is the model of academic and intellectual training that holds and is good. So indeed, the work on the ecosystem, on the context and the duty of education of young people to a very intimate degree is our obligation, and this situation is a reminder that we need to reinforce all of these elements.
TSP: Do you have anything to add?
Turpin: I hope I answered your questions, I know this is a very tough and delicate topic. I sincerely hope that in the future, based on what we are going through now, the way of dealing with it, and the awareness in everybody’s minds, will prevent this kind of situation where students have to step out very publicly, which is very difficult. My wish is that this campus is a place where students like to come, like to agree to disagree, and like to wait for delicious CROUS meals, or go to LS01 for a very stimulating lecture, or just to meet people, and knowing that there is not going to be any particular problems. We won’t eradicate everything, but progress is something slow and constant.