Friday, May 18, 2012

Harvard: a model for French universities?

Yesterday's issue of Le Monde newspaper had a full page article on everything that is admirable about Harvard, the "best university in the world" according to the Shanghai ranking, that the French seem to pay close attention to.

The person interviewed, Stephanie Grousset-Charriere, first points out that she was hired as a lecturer after four half-hour meetings with members of the department faculty (she's in Sociology). This comes in sharp contrast with the French system and its extremely short interviews, every applicant giving one talk each, scheduled back to back on the same day, resulting in tenured hires.

The French hiring system seems almost incredible in its lack of seriousness in hiring, until one realizes that a lot goes on behind the scenes. It is normal for serious candidates to arrange to give an hour-long seminar some time during the previous months. Phone calls are given, opinions are discreetly sollicited, and there is an unspoken expectation of thorough background work that culminates with the final formal interview, whose role is mostly to confirm opinions, clarify lingering doubts and resolve remaining questions about the applicant. At least, that is my impression, but I don't know for sure. Part of the reason is that compared to the US, France is a relatively small country, so promising candidates can be identified early on. But at a time when the process is becoming more international, the lack of transparency is a major obstacle for foreign applicants: it is hard for them to know what is expected of them. For example, would their calling the chair of the hiring committee be considered a breach of ethics or lack of good manners, or would their not calling the chair of the hiring committee be considered a sign of disinterest or lack of good manners? They don't know, and for them, applying is a little bit like walking a minefield. At a time of increasing internationalization, I think that the French system is a handicap (not to mention the risk of manipulation).

The article then points out that Harvard provides new faculty with pedagogical resources. The first lecture is filmed and criticized, and there is a training camp for new faculty. In my experience in various institutions in the US, the pedagogical resources available are not very important in themselves, but their existence signals a commitment. When I was a professor at Orsay and at X, my teaching issues were discussed around the coffee machine. At Brown, my teaching issues have also typically been discussed around coffee. Colleagues help colleagues identify the reasons of their problems and give shape to possible responses that they can then try out. The main difference was that at Brown, more faculty are interested and willing to spend more time fine-tuning their teaching. Why is that? I think that it is because of the low teacher-student ratio. As mentioned in the Le Monde article, at Harvard (and other similar institutions) there is a very low ratio: the number of students enrolled is about 10 times the number of faculty. That naturally implies that the faculty teach fewer courses to fewer students, and therefore have more time to devote to making their teaching effective. I think that in places with a low student-teacher ratio, the instructors have almost a duty to teach outstanding courses, and, perhaps, their courses can serve as models for similar courses in other institutions.

The article also mentions Harvard expectations that the faculty will be well dressed, smiling and polite. That made me laugh; obviously they have not looked at computer scientists! Unless Harvard stands out in a unique way, in computer science the instructor's clothes are completely nondescript.

The article points out that in Management, the instructors know a lot about real life applications, but it does not give a reason for it. I would agree that faculty in the US have more connections to the world outside academia (in industry, for computer science), and that it is a good thing. I have a conjecture as to the reason: in France professors are paid 12-month salaries, but in most universities in the US, they are paid 9-month salaries, and for the other three months, are expected to find funding on their own: typically by getting grants, but also by consulting with industries. It's a strong incentive to keep a link with the outside. At the same time, it guarantees that the university chores will not encroach into the summer months: in June, July and August, the faculty owe nothing to their university, and no one has any grounds for complaints if they are away.

The article talks about the generosity of Harvard alumni. Why are former students so generous in their giving? One reason is the tax structure: I believe that those donations can be for extremely large amounts and are entirely tax deductible. Another reason is that Harvard (or Brown, or most other schools in the US) develops a loyalty to the institution, by promoting events that serve to celebrate Harvard. Ceremonies start and end the university school year, speeches are given, traditions such as distinctive university colors, a motto, a mission statement, a song, are encouraged. Famous former students are celebrated. Anecdotes about life at the university are preciously kept, and an image of the institution develops, like a nation. In the same way that people might say: "We the French particularly care about human rights (or about food)", they might say "At Brown, students are into social justice". In a similar way that there is a pride of being French, students develop a pride of being from Brown, not necessarily because it is the "best" place in some absolute way, but because of its distinctive features. How does that help generous giving? Making a donation is a way to give back to the institution. Donors remember what they learned while at Brown and all the good things that they received from Brown during their education, and later in life, if they become rich, they may want to offer similar opportunities to future generations by giving to Brown. Fostering such sentiments requires giving students a good experience during their education, and making sure that the school has a strong enough identity that the student associates their experience specifically with their school. In contrast with that, I remember talking to a former student from Ecole Normale Superieure right after I was admitted. She said: "Being accepted at ENS gives you three things: first, a label that will help you in the next few years; second, a salary during your studies; third, cheap subsidized housing in Paris. That's it." How depressing it was to hear that! I think that her assessment was incorrect, but such was her experience. How could someone like her ever be tempted to make a donation?

8 comments:

  1. And Harvard also provides an education that is in reach to just a select few. Sure you can ring the bell of needs-blind admissions and large scholarships, but there is no denying the fact that, even if a student could manage to end up paying a small fraction of the tuition in order to attend such an elite university, how many would? How many households in the US - where the 50th percentile income is far below the cost of one year's attendance at Harvard - would even consider this as a viable option? Never mind the problem with what high school you are able to go to and what your chances are of ending up at an elite school if you live in a poor neighborhood with poorly-funded schools compared to if you lived in a wealthy neighborhood with well-funded schools or attended private school.

    It saddens me that France, with a history of strong social programs, would look to the most elite, most inaccessible school as a model for success. I would hope they would rather look at the strongest public universities around the world for guidance and strive to provide an education that is within reach of anyone, no matter how much their parents earned or what their parents jobs.

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    1. Glencora:

      Are you familiar with how excruciatingly elitist the Grand Ecoles are?

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  2. The tuition was mentioned only in passing in the article. I don't think the cost of tuition really sinks in for French visitors, even long-term, until they experience it themselves.

    As to why they are looking specifically at Harvard as a model: it appears that many people are paying close attention to the Shanghai rankings. Why, I don't know.

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    1. Harvard's tuition is free if the family income is under $65,000/year, and scholarships are extended for families making close to $200,000 (though the amount the family is expected to pay remains quite a lot for families >100,000

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    2. I know why, because it is not compiled or maintained by an Anglo-Saxon organization and the Napoleonic higher education institutions are not "universities" at all neither in Anglo-Saxon meaning of the term nor in Humboldt.

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  3. Harvard really do give scholarships and free educations to those who are really in need. But then again, you have to maintain your average.

    french universities

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  5. Harvard university is really a popular school|! How I wish I studies there. :) I think Harvard is already offering online classes for college, right?

    http://www.elearners.com/

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