Interview conducted by Monica Schneck.
On January 10, students received an email announcing that Crystal Cordell Paris would replace Tilman Turpin as the Acting Director in Reims. Once the removed relaxation of winter break subsided, I decided to set aside some time to get her thoughts on the upcoming semester – one marked by an Omicron-induced spike in COVID-19 rates, a tumultuous French election cycle, and a new President of Sciences Po. In this interview, Crystal Cordell Paris shares excitement for the semester, informs students on challenges and offers some of her own advice.
Editor’s Note: Responses have been edited for length and clarity purposes.
Goals and Priorities
What are some of your main goals and priorities for our campus going forward?
Crystal Cordell Paris
I have a lot. So in terms of students, I want to make sure we’re reinforcing the accompaniment of our students: when it comes to academics, when it comes to integration, when it comes to preventing discrimination and sexual and sexist violence, when it comes to thinking about health in a very holistic way. In terms of this campus, in particular, one of the reasons why I love it so much and why I’m really delighted to be taking on my role is because I find that we have such a huge potential here in terms of the unique character of our campus. We have four programs here: EURAF, EURAM, a program for exchange students, and our BASC program with the University of Reims Champagne-Ardenne.
So one of my main objectives is to work on integrating all of our programs together, all of our students together. And one of the first measures I’m going to take is to change the configuration of the student rep meetings to make sure that we’re working with both programs simultaneously. I’ll be meeting with the Europe-Africa students and the Europe-North America students together. It’s one of the first changes I’m going to make.
Another priority that I have is to reinforce the visibility, I would say, of what amazing things our students are doing in the domain of arts and sports – and I believe that those things have a federative power; they bring students together. So I’m really looking forward to working with the student associations on those issues as well.
How do you think that will affect the students – to change the structure of the meetings with the student representatives?
Crystal Cordell Paris
What I’m hoping is that it will reinforce their sense of belonging to the same campus. Certainly, we have our specific programs, and that’s our strength; we want to make sure that we’re developing the specificities of our programs. That’s also an ambition that I have: continuing to invite, for example, international researchers, like I’ve been able to do over the past year and a half since I joined the campus. We invited Chinedum Nwajiuba from Nigeria. He spoke in English – a wonderful conference on agriculture, economics, and climate change – and we had all programs represented. We had students in the BASC diploma that were really interested in those topics. It was in English so Europe-North America students could come that didn’t speak French, we had Europe-Africa students interested in the examples that were being given, we had exchange students present – and that sort of symbolizes what my vision is.
So I think that through the new configuration of the student rep meetings – which is sort of symbolic, but it’s also very functional – it’s going to reinforce the dialogue among students, and hopefully generate some new perspectives and ideas for how we can, for example, organize scientific events that bring everyone together around topics that are of general interest.
Challenges of the Semester
What do you think are some of the biggest challenges facing our campus this upcoming semester?
Crystal Cordell Paris
Well, obviously, we’re still in the midst of the pandemic. So that’s a challenge that we’re continuing to work on. I do find that as we go through it students are becoming more adaptable and they understand what the importance is in terms of respecting the health guidelines, et cetera.
For our campus – but I think more generally – the period that’s coming up is an electoral period in France. So, there’s a presidential campaign going on. There will be parliamentary elections coming up in June. And during an electoral campaign, what tends to happen is that political positions become a little bit stronger, polarization tends to increase as well. And so it’s one of the challenges, but it’s a beautiful challenge actually. It’s really one of those challenges that we’re here to learn how to adapt to and face so that the dialogues and debates that are going on are civil; they’re open and allow for freedom of expression while respecting the different positions of everyone. So that’s a learning experience that I hope that students will take advantage of.
The other challenge, I would say, is to continue to face the aftermath of everything that’s gone on within the institution surrounding sexual violence and sexist violence. That’s really an important topic for me and I want to make sure that everyone feels safe on this campus through open dialogue. I really want to continue the great work that was started with student associations on these issues because it’s been a very constructive period, and I’m very proud of what we’ve been able to do on this campus, and I want to work on prevention of discrimination. It’s an important priority for me. Again, making sure that everyone feels safe, that everyone is able to develop, I would say, and reinforce a sense of the advantages of diversity, so that everyone feels like they have a voice on this campus, and everyone knows how to disagree civilly and with respect.
Advice to Students
Do you have any advice in particular to students about any of the things that you mentioned, from the upcoming French elections, to dealing with Covid-19, or to helping to make the campus a better place in terms of less discrimination and sexist violence?
Crystal Cordell Paris
I firmly believe in dialogue. I believe that when we are passionate about issues and also when we’re impacted maybe in a particular way by something, that one of the best ways of approaching it is to talk about it constructively. Again through student associations, I want to make sure that I’m establishing a dialogue directly with myself as well. So I’ll be opening up slots to meet the acting director very shortly. So my advice is basically to speak with each other before posting something incendiary on social media.
Direct communication is something that works very well in terms of diminishing the negative passions that we can have as concerned citizens. I’m not throwing the stone at anyone because when we’re passionate about things, we have a legitimate sort of interest. My advice is really to increase our communication. I manage a team of twenty seven people now, and, in my role as a manager, I find that incredibly important as well. If we speak to each other, rather than writing an email or posting something on social media, we tend to recognize the other person that we’re talking to, our interactor, as someone who’s truly human. And I think that the conditions in a dialogue should always be ones that are constructive and respectful.
Do you have any particular pedagogical philosophies that you think will guide you through your time as acting director?
Crystal Cordell Paris
Yes, I am a pedagogue. As you know, I had an entire career of teaching and research before I started the administration in 2018 in Menton, and so that’s an important question for me. In terms of pedagogy, I believe very, very deeply in interdisciplinarity. It’s one of the distinguishing features of what we do at Sciences Po and what I love about our pedagogical project here – you see it in all of our course programs when you look at the curriculum. What I’m really interested in is building and reinforcing what we’ve started to do in terms of integrating social sciences and humanities with sciences. The ecological transition presents questions that can really help us to valorize our relationships here within the region in terms of sciences, in terms of bioeconomy, or the BASC program and help to carry this interdisciplinary philosophy and pedagogy throughout the curriculum. So I’m really excited about the new course on the environment that the new director, Mr. Vicherat, wants to introduce for all students to complement the Sciences and Societies course, adding a digital culture element to campus, and working with student associations that are interested in issues linked to the environment. So getting students to really understand in practice what interdisciplinarity means is really important for me pedagogically.
What’s also important to me pedagogically is that students understand in a very practical way what research means. I’m really proud of the fact that we are deploying for the first time our seminar series offered by our teaching fellows. We have an amazing teaching fellowship program here on the campus. It’s the flagship campus. We have eight teaching fellows, as you know, in a variety of disciplines, and so they’re a great resource and I’m working with them closely to bring to students here a practical real-life understanding of what a researcher does, what research means, the different paths that can bring our students to research, the importance of intellectual integrity and academic liberty. So making students aware of those issues and all that research can actually bring up a dialogue that’s very open about public policy. Those are the main issues for me, pedagogically speaking.
What is your plan and approach to COVID-19 and its impact on our campus this semester? Especially given the recent World Health Organization projection that 50% of European citizens will be infected with the Omicron variant in the first 2 months of 2022, are there any particular new plans or goals?
Crystal Cordell Paris
In terms of Covid, we now know how to adapt depending on the situation, one which no one can control and few can predict. What we’re doing now is maintaining the health and sanitation measures we’ve put into place, which we’ll continue to do. We’re applying the rules that the Ministry of Higher Education, Research, and Innovation developed to ensure two things: pedagogical continuity and safety (and this is always a balancing act of course). So what the research has been showing is that COVID-19 has had an impact certainly on physical health, but it has also had an impact on psychological health, so for our students here, I mentioned a holistic approach to student wellbeing that I’m very attached to. We want to make sure that students are doing well, and that means favoring as much as we can in-person teaching. That’s what the research is showing, that taking away that component from students, preventing them from engaging in in-person learning and student life activities, that’s having a huge impact on psychological and mental health. So what we’re doing is we’re being very vigilant about all of the health measures: mask-wearing, airing out rooms, disinfecting, all of that.
We’re confident, because I have been following what the health professionals have been saying about Omicron, that it will be getting better very soon. We should be reaching the peak these days in terms of infections. It has been shown to be a less dangerous variant overall compared to Delta and other variants, but more contagious. Obviously our institution is following these developments very closely and we are able to adapt if a new, more dangerous variant arrives. If we need to increase remote learning, obviously we’re capable of that. But I am personally convinced that what’s best for our students is to give them the possibility of coming here, engaging in in-person learning, and being protected here. Because when students are on the campus, they’re wearing the mask all the time, and this is not where they’re getting infected. It’s outside of the campus in other environments where they’re actually getting sick. So I’m telling students, come to campus – you’re safe here, you’re following the rules, we’re making sure that you are – and engage in in-person learning so you can really benefit from your experience as a student. It’s such a formative time for you, in this period of your intellectual and social development it’s so important to have these opportunities to engage with each other and your instructor.
Excitement for the Semester
What are you most excited for and looking forward to for this semester?
Crystal Cordell Paris
I’m really looking forward to getting to know the students even better. I’m looking forward to engaging with our partners, working on issues like entrepreneurship is something I’m really excited about. I’ve been working with this event called Startitup, where a bunch of entrepreneurs and innovators come to campus and I want to involve students. I’m really excited about engaging the alumni of the campus as well. We were able to welcome the first cohorts of this campus back for an event in November, and I’m looking forward to celebrating the 400th anniversary of this site. The anniversary passed, it was in 2019. This was important for the director of Sciences Po, Mr. Vicherat, and I want to do another celebration of the various anniversaries as well. Celebrating 400 years of the site, 150 years for the institution for Sciences Po. Some of these anniversaries have passed, but really making this year a moment of festivity and community, I’m looking forward to that.