The arrest of Mathias Vicherat last December was a serious blow to the reputation of Sciences Po and the accusations brought against him undermine its policies against sexual and gender-based violence. A little under three years since the resignation of the previous director, Frédéric Mion, in light of his attempts to cover up the terrible acts of Olivier Duhamel, the management of our school finds itself embroiled in another scandal.
Yet beyond the damage to our institution’s reputation, the biggest failure of the board lies in its responsibilities to its students: it has once more let us down.
The entire student community has a perfectly legitimate – and even necessary – duty to be angry at the news that broke out at the end of last semester. Guilty or not, Mathias Vicherat has utterly discredited all the efforts made in the last years to root out the culture of sexual and gender-based violence in our school.
The reaction of students across Sciences Po’s seven campuses has been vociferous, and the management of the institution must respect and understand their demands.
At this point, the administration has certainly heard the protests of some. What is not clear is if they have listened. But continuing the blockades to keep sending the message is no longer the most viable option. Those who have chosen to block our campus twice this week are now, too, letting the students down.
One may argue that this movement is democratic, and that it voices the anger of students. While the actions may well be supported by a majority of students, there is no formal evidence of that being the case. This week’s blockades were decided upon during general assemblies held on campus, giving a semblance of widespread support from the student community. Yet, it is difficult to see how, in the case of today’s blockade, a WhatsApp group message posted 18 minutes before the beginning of said assembly would allow a clear majority of the student body to join in on the decision-making. What of those who are in class? Or those who were not on campus at that time? Whilst organising a general vote on student action is difficult, with great action comes great responsibility. Such a vote would certainly establish actual support for the blockades.
Now, at this point, the valiant efforts of the blockaders to post some kind of information about the movement or the available alternatives to those wishing to study on campus are to be noted. But this is hardly dialogue. Instead of negotiating with the student body, the blockaders impose their action on others, unsure of whether they actually have majority support, and leave everyone else to pay the price of their actions.
So, what is this price?
The most obvious is the impeding of classes. To this, the solution is, naturally, online classes. But if the administration and the blockaders think this is a perfectly viable solution, then both are incredibly naïve. However, I’m sure that fellow students are well aware of the difficulty of carrying out an art workshop, a presentation, or a maths class over a Zoom call. Not only does the forced closure of campus render learning experiences more complex, but it also impedes the work of our teachers, some of whom are already struggling with vast and excessive syllabi to cover.
Some may argue that the “access to education” argument is weak and artificial, but let us remember that many students, particularly those from abroad, have paid considerable tuition fees to attend classes at Sciences Po. A few months ago, students protested against the increase of these fees. And yet today, no one is getting what they paid for.
In fact, some students, organisations, and unions are verging on hypocrisy, committing the same mistake that they accuse the administration of. Some of the blockaders, for instance, have also publicly called for access to cheap food and decent housing for all in recent campaigns. I think we can all agree these are basic needs. And yet the blockades can go against both these principles.
On the one hand, students in the most precarious financial situations, who rely on their 1-euro meal at the cafeteria to get quality nutrition at least once a day during the week, can no longer access that food without travelling across the city, which itself has costs — not to mention the wasted food sitting in the refrigerators of the kitchens. Meanwhile, the students who can only afford modest living conditions, come to campus to access an indoor space that is properly heated in the middle of winter, either because they cannot afford to turn the heater on themselves or because their housing is poorly equipped. And there are at least a few students who do not have an internet connection at home. To this, you may suggest going to a public library. To which I respond, good luck taking part in a Zoom class without being able to talk.
The disruption caused to the entire university community – students, faculty, visitors, and staff alike – has not been justified, and it is those who are not organising the blockades who are paying the price.
But the administration must also bear the responsibility for the blockades. They could either take measures to stop the blockades, or they could actually engage in meaningful dialogue with the protesting students, which would probably appease the mobilisation, at least in the short term.
The current Mexican standoff in which the institution’s directors will not exchange with the students is not benefiting anyone. The flurry of meaningless template emails that we have all received in recent months have angered those already mobilised, further damaged the reputation of the board and the various supervising councils of the school, and left the rest of the university community in the dark.
Yet this still does not justify the blockades. At this point, the resignation of Mathias Vicherat is probably a question of time. Given that Sciences Po is a university run like a company, it will not be long before the administration realises that a director under investigation for domestic abuse does not have great performative effects. And let us not forget that he has lost all credibility in the eyes of the academic community: the entire sociology department is calling for his departure, as are some top faculty members.
So, where do we go now if blockades are not an option? Students are right to mobilise against such a crucial issue. Combatting sexual and gender-based violence is an immense challenge, not just for the school, but also for society. Students should be actively engaged in talks with the administration about the next steps and policies to be carried out. For this to happen, both parties need to sit down and work together. The current situation is getting us nowhere, and words are being wasted. Until the school’s management agrees to get around the discussion table, mobilisation ought to continue, but not in the form of blockades.
Those wishing to manifest their discontent could organise a mass student strike. This could just as easily be publicised, especially if a demonstration is organised. At the same time, those who wish to access campus will be able to, and the problems mentioned above will cease. This also has the added benefit of being able to actually quantify student support for the movement, and a strike could be extended to faculty members who wish to show their support.
Other solutions could be envisaged, but at this point, the only thing that matters is that the protests do not further penalise students and the rest of the Sciences Po community.
Mathias Vicherat, guilty or not, must now resign. But the blockades must also stop, for they too are damaging our community.