I entered the office to find Director Turpin sorting through his things. Boxes had been stacked in the doorway containing everything that had brought the room to life over the past four years. All that remained was the scaffolding, the empty bookshelves waiting to be filled with new life. As Director Turpin prepared for his departure from the campus, I asked him what was going through his mind. Please enjoy this interview, his last as Tyrant of the Campus.
What are you leaving behind?
So maybe we could begin by reflecting on what you think you’ve brought to the campus and what are you most proud of achieving in your time here?
The most easy questions at the beginning.
I don’t know what I brought to the campus. I don’t know if it’s so much what you bring to a place, but what you make of it, and this sense of how you use what exists, which doors you open, whom you integrate into the team. For example, I recruited Anne-Charlotte, the “maman” of the campus.
I think one thing I definitely brought was to open this campus to the city. I very much believe that it is highly important that places like this which are sort of a secret space hidden from the looks of the city be open and accessible for a series of reasons. The first, I believe, is that knowledge is to be shared with the city. We want to welcome people on campus for conferences and events, and at the same time have events that we do not organize ourselves not necessarily linked to academics, the Easter egg hunt for the “Foyer Saint-Rémi,” for example. I consider that we owe the city this openness. At the same time it allows us to demystify. It’s very easy to be attacked for training elites. If you close the door, the worst rumors will come up. So I think one of the things I brought to this campus is making it be part of the city of Reims.
And what I’ve been most proud of? Having spent years with thousands of students with the very vast majority of them enjoying their time here learning and studying. There’s many small moments that make me very proud – students coming into my office and not feeling well, thinking there’s too much work, discussing it, and then coming back a few weeks later saying, I’m feeling better. Students coming back for what we call “homecoming” after their third year abroad. So I might be back then if I am invited to reunite with these students.
Your time here, it’s definitely been quite tumultuous, especially in the recent years. How was it to be in the administration during all these crises?
Well, there were plenty of crises before COVID-19. There was the campus occupation of the amphitheater in 2018. This has never been a quiet job. Professionally, it’s been the richest experience you can go through in our education. Humanly also, it’s very, very challenging. At the same time, I must admit, I’m tired. I’m pretty tired after four years, plus four years on another campus because you’re always on the frontline. I represent an institution that makes decisions. Obviously you’re clever students, so you question these decisions. So you constantly spend your life explaining the decision processess. To be honest, I as a person don’t share every single conviction of the institution.
It’s taught me to be very flexible. You plan for something that you very quickly have to change, respond to a new challenge. I think the first lockdown was on March 16th and the students on March 13 said, “Sir, you know, it’s Saturday tomorrow. Could we have a picnic on campus because, you know, we don’t know if we’ll be able to come back.” Yeah. Fine, perfect. Yeah, you can do some music. Yes, OK. They started off wanting it to be a small picnic, and then it ended up a big party with about 700 students. I started panicking. I noticed just how important this would be, so I call the police, I call the mayor, and I asked, “is this OK?” You learn a very human way to very quickly deal with very unexpected situations.
I’ve also learned to organize my time. My day is split up into blocks of 15 minutes, so you learn time management and being able to, as the French say, “sauter du coq à l’âne” – being able to deal with this interview now and after that, I have a meeting with SPE who have a certain number of requests regarding how to make this campaign greener – being able to switch totally switch from one subject to another even when you haven’t had the time to reprepare yourself.
Lastly, you have to think out of the box. We have procedures, but to what extent can you within these procedures and rules find individual solutions for individual cases? So it’s kind of a mental agility, I think.
The Future of the Reims Campus
And now that we’re where we are now, what do you think is the future of this campus?
This is the biggest campus of Sciences Po outside Paris and it’s the most important. I don’t think I really have to be very modest. It’s absolutely international, has a thriving student life. My mission was in four years to bring the campus to its final stage of growth in terms of students and staff. So that’s what I did. Mission complete. And that’s why I can leave now. Now it’s about keeping this big ship stable.
Sometimes the sea might be wild, but the ship itself won’t sink. It’s got to become an even stronger actor in the city. At one point, the crisis will end and we’ll finally discover that people do have mouths and noses and not just eyes and ears. That’s a big challenge to make sure that social contacts and the way we deal with other people is not fundamentally altered by the consequences of the crisis. I’m much more suspicious nowadays. Have you wash your hands? How long have you been wearing this mask, et cetera, et cetera. So coming back to a society of mutual trust and confidence while at the same time French society is going berserk with a certain extreme right-wing candidate propagating hate, that’s the challenge for the future – coming back to normal and maintaining the quality of campus life in a world where agreeing to disagree has become more and more difficult.
Maybe there are also some positive things we have learned or improvements that we can make after having gone through the pandemic. It’s very easy to immediately associate everything bad with the pandemic. But of course, there were also some good things that maybe we can continue doing to find the best of both worlds.
I totally agree. Hybrid learning is something worth developing, but everybody reacted in a very immediate way to having to switch to remote learning. Few institutions actually had the time to think, how do we have to transform learning processes to make hybrid learning possible? It’s fantastic to be able to have for you, students, the best academics at distance. Someone might be a great lecturer, but they are in New York. It doesn’t make sense to pay a plane ticket every week, regardless of ecological considerations. But there are possibilities for this person to teach. It requires that we rethink the way we use screens and the digital medium. That’s a positive point of the COVID crisis.
There are also questions like how you want to teach in the 21st century? I very much believe in books, for example. I think nothing will replace a library with real books and comics and paper. I spent the night in my confinement reading a lot because I could go to the library. Since I had the campus keys, I could take the books I wanted.
The New President of Sciences Po
I would be interested to hear your opinion of Sciences Po’s new president, Mathias Vicherat, and the goals he is proposing.
To be very honest, it’s a bit difficult because he was appointed when I knew that I would be leaving. So to be totally honest, I didn’t read his program in detail. I’ll be meeting with him next week.
I think he will continue this opening of Sciences Po towards the society. And he’s very much attached to the fact that our institution cannot evolve on its own. Sciences Po is a major actor in public life, simply by the fact that our professors share their expertise. So I think he very much believes in the bridges between public and private.
Having worked for many years with Frédéric Mion, someone very reserved, I think he’s a more dynamic person who will consider the students differently. I think that’s a very good way of making sure that students’ concerns are listened to without leaving the original project of Sciences Po. Students always want to bring change, which is a good thing. But not all change is good in the sense that if you leave the institutional project too far, what an institution stands for will get lost.
I think he will be a bit more like Richard Descoings if you compare the styles, a very close relationship with students. I remember when I was a student, I smoked at that time and Richard Descoings smoked, so he would ask me for a cigarette when I was standing outside, which Frédéric Mion wouldn’t have done even if he had smoked.
From the internal side of things, it is very much needed after these difficult times. It’s the moment to rest. Breathe. Think about how we want to do things in the future. We’re going to have the new campus in Paris, which is going to be not as nice as this campus. We’ll get that started in January and then see how the teams recover.
Do you see him more as more of an interim solution? Or is this the guy that Sciences Po wants to go with in the long term?
He said he would come for two mandates. One mandate is five years. We are second in the world in political science, not bad for a small institution, and he wants to make sure that other academic fields go in a similar direction, recruit more permanent faculty, maintain the high level of internationalization, continuing to work on the diversity of the campuses. Ten years leaves you quite a long time to consolidate and change a number of things, and have these changes implemented in the ecosystem. So I think he will be a good director. It’s always very easy and it’s very French to start bashing someone before he takes his job and say, this is going to be a catastrophe. Let’s just wait and see how things go.
The Next Chapter in Poitiers
There was a lot of speculation when you first sent out your email about leaving that there was some sort of connection between the new president and your descision.
It is not the case. I knew that students would think that, that I’ll be joining Olivier Chopin with his spy activities in the future. It’s just a “concours de circonstances,” as the French say, that I was recruited by another institution in the city that my family wanted to go back to. The family wanted to go back to Poitiers. Up to now, I obliged them to follow my professional tracks. So now I follow the family’s desire. Obviously, this didn’t happen yesterday. This has been going on for quite a number of months. I officially resigned on September 20th, but I decided to wait until the end of the semester as long as possible to announce my departure.
There’s absolutely no link between the arrival of the new president. On the contrary, I think I’d like to have worked with him in the future. As Arnold Schwarzenegger said, I might be back. But as I said earlier on, I’ve been running campuses for over eight years now in office, and it’s a 24/7, 365-day job. I have two days off, August 15th and January 1st. And every other day of the year, you wake up in the morning and you think about the job.
It’s not running a factory, it’s working with young people. If you really care, then this is not a job where you can go home at 6:00 in the evening and do something else. In the long run that’s tiring, emotionally tiring in the sense that you students are on my mind 24 hours a day.
On the Poitiers campus, I will teach a political science class in English next month. That’s great, it allows me to keep my email address. As a former Sciences Po student, I’ll have my email address until the end. But my main post will be at the “Institut des hautes études de l’éducation et de la formation.”
The New Director of Reims
What’s now the process for finding a new director and do you have any idea who that might be?
No, I have no idea who it will be. There are candidates from inside Sciences Po and candidates from outside. You need a very specific profile to run this kind of place. I think you have to be very laid back, have experience in management because this is a big budget. I think it’s close to a 12 million euro budget, which is 10 percent of Sciences Po. It’s a lot of money. It’s 40000m2, a staff of 30, 400 instructors, 1500 or more students. And it’s also a lot about representation. You know, my job is not just signing papers and talking to students.
The new director will arrive in January. I won’t be there to welcome that person, so there will be a letter on my desk saying “cher inconnu.” There will be a USB stick with the files, the to-do list, who to call first, who to go first.
What one piece of advice would you give that director as a more informal note?
Never panic. What I tell students: stay calm and study social science. The same thing applies to us. It’s very easy to be seized by panic in the sense that events can be very often unforeseen. For example, I got a message earlier on about the movement against the administration in Le Havre. I read that – OK, panic, what’s happening, you know? No, stay calm.
I think another very important thing is take students seriously. I am sure that this job only works if you consider the students as young, responsible people who have the perfect right to very different ideas. It’s easy to consider young people as too young to understand. But especially students of Sciences Po are perfectly capable of understanding complex situations. And consequently, it is our job to take your questions seriously, which challenges us in the way we make decisions and how we can justify them. It’s a long piece of advice, but stay calm, don’t panic, and take you seriously.
What do you think you’ll miss most?
Students. Definitely. When you do this job, you are on a kind of mission. You have to have faith and believe in what you’re doing. I’ve been doing this for the last 12 years, accompanying young people in their studies. As I said earlier, students are a permanent challenge, obliging myself to ask if the way I see things is the right way of seeing things. At some point in time, you feel sort of “has been” because you’re pretty old compared to students. That’s not the nice side of things because students will always have the same age, but we grow older every year. I’ll miss that most… the time spent with students.
Do you have a favorite memory?
I think definitely one of the absolutely brilliant memories was this famous 14th of March 2020 before the lockdown started and we had this enormous party that was supposed to be a picnic, but it ended up being a party with the whole student body. They broke bottles of champagne. I shouldn’t be saying this, but you know, there were bottles of champagne. It was a great afternoon sort of saying goodbye to students knowing that I would not see them again.
And then there’s other moments like the first time we see the new cohort in the amphitheater. Six hundred incoming students. You get goose bumps because it’s so intense. You’ve been working for this for months. You’ve been doing interview after interview, you read the files, you have meetings. And then comes the day in August where you see all these new students and it’s just unforgettable.
The Future of Social Science
What’s your outlook for the future of social science in general, especially in regards to digitalization? You know, the highest paid degrees nowadays are in computer science. Why should we still be here studying social sciences?
If you stop doing social sciences, you stop living in the social world. You know, we’re human beings, we socialize and social sciences are here to explain to us how this works, what the mechanisms are. And if you don’t have social sciences, we stop understanding the world and we’ll make the same mistakes all over again. And so social sciences are most crucial.
But at the same time, I very much believe in interdisciplinarity, in the fact that social sciences and hard sciences go together. You produce big data with hard science. But the way you analyze it, you need social sciences. Social science needs to accompany the evolution with hard sciences. Ecological transition, for example, is a question of hard science, but you cannot do ecological transition without looking at it through social science.
If social sciences disappear, we’re going to live in a world like what George Orwell described in 1984 or the film with The Matrix, which is a world of hard sciences, an abstract totalitarian techno-fascist system in which humanity is lost. I don’t know if you’ve seen the film WALL-E. I think to a certain extent, humanity is going in this direction. There is this one scene where people are being fed by machines and watching screens the whole day. That’s not that far from reality. And the simple fact of reflecting on that, saying we shouldn’t spend our time running behind technological revolutions, but think what we actually want to do with these technological revolutions, is most important. Facebook, social media is going berzerk. It was a super idea at the beginning but it’s completely out of control.
It’s up to social sciences to govern these questions, providing the grounds on which these decisions can be made. It’s the most sexy and funky thing in the world for me. OK, I don’t like economics, but that’s a personal note.
Famous Last Words
Is there anything I didn’t ask that you just want to say or add?
It’s been an honor working for this institution and specifically on this campus. It’s been one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made to sign this letter of resignation because my next job will have no students.