Where are we heading ? Interview with Bernard El Ghoul

Selfie with Bernard El Ghoul during 2015 back to school ceremony, by Majda Kharoubi.

For its last edition of the previous year, Le Zadig offered you an exclusive interview with our director, Bernard El Ghoul, where light was shed on the campus’s isolation, student association funding, the administration’s mission, the Italian track’s failure, and the future of Sciences Po in Menton. What will it be this year?

Interview by Nesma Merhoum & Christoph Trost

Translation by Nesma Merhoum, Jacquelyn Rudich & Annie Whitney

This year is the Menton campus’s tenth anniversary. Could you tell us more about the dynamics and the goal behind such a location? What link can we draw between this place, the studies we pursue in it about the Middle East and North Africa, and our student life and experience?

When we first created the campus, we had a double goal.

The first one was to fit it into the dynamic of Sciences Po’s regional campuses: Creating international campuses in small- or medium-sized cities, where students get to develop friendships and solidarity ties – what you call the ‘assabiyya – and some kind of intellectual proximity. This means that we want students to build both common work methods and a network of relations that can be useful for the future.

This is the reason why the first campus was established in Nancy. The idea came up after we noticed that French-German public relations were fine, but they had not led to any economic materialization. This could be explained by the fact that French and German students didn’t speak the same language, thus they didn’t have a common work language or common work methods. Therefore, our goal was to create a program in which students would work in a multilingual framework – using French, German and English – in order to lay fertile soil for the growing generation.

The other regional Sciences Po campuses developed following this model. When we opened the Menton campus, former Director of Sciences Po Richard Descoings wanted to gather students from the northern, southern, and eastern sides of the Mediterranean, generating an “east and west” dialogue.

We were in an ethno-cultural dimension – the encounter between Europe and the East.

After that, we quickly noticed that we were not only in a place with a strong cultural and linguistic dimension, but that primarily we had a thematic campus, with students from all over the world. This was the first great specificity that we witnessed throughout the years.

The second assumption behind regional campuses was that, in the beginning of the 2000s, globalized education focused mainly on an international standpoint. The greatest universities worldwide are trying to tackle global issues by installing campuses overseas – Asia, Europe, the Gulf, etc. Richard Descoings favored another approach – setting up international campuses in France and welcoming students from all over the world.

Menton in the middle nowhere.

Menton in the middle of nowhere.

However, practically, we cannot deny that the geographical isolation that our campus suffers creates many difficulties for teachers regarding transportation – for example, the Air France strike last autumn – and for students who want to take part  in events involving other campuses (WEICs, Minicrit, etc.). Did the administration bear this factor in mind when founding the campus, or did this reality come up afterwards – as collateral damage?

Indeed, our campus stands out from the rest of Sciences Po because of its distant location. However, we need to keep in mind that the process of creating campuses has always been carried out hand in hand with the local authorities. Our installation in Menton is the result of two wills: Sciences Po’s willingness to open itself to Mediterranean and Oriental-related studies, but also the will of Menton to welcome this campus. In fact, Deputy Mayor Jean-Claude Guibal was the one who reached out to us to suggest setting the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean campus of Sciences Po here in Menton.

We need to acknowledge two parameters when choosing a location in which to install a campus: First, the support of the local authorities, then the available facilities. The city of Menton was available to provide us with a building like the former Saint-Julien hospice, a functioning subsidy, a contact with the Department Council, etc. The whole project lies on Sciences Po’s drive for education, and Menton’s intellectual and logistical willingness to welcome us.

We knew that there would be logistical concerns regarding this location. Some years went better than others  – because of strikes, for instance. However, I feel like we didn’t suffer too many strikes this year – except for the three catastrophic weeks during first semester. Nonetheless, it makes sense to point out that distance remains an issue. For this reason, we have decided to review the organization of the school next year, following two lines.

First, we are going to hire more resident teachers on campus. Second, we wish to set up intensive courses, using the same format as Winter School.

This could also help us financially by reducing the cost of transportation.

However, we must not forget that many of our teachers such as Jean-Pierre Filiu, Stéphane Lacroix, Marc Lazar, and Pascal Perrineau are internationally known professors. They have to teach on the Paris campus and abroad as well, and we have to adapt to their availability.

We are trying to overcome the campus’s remoteness with highly qualified professors. They really add value to the education of our students.

Another way to reduce the campus’s remoteness is to deepen the ties with students accross the region. Menton is not a student city – this is easily noticeable seeing the lack of sports facilities, student housing, etc. Thus, it is also interesting to use other means of integration such as the University of Nice Sophia Antipolis – this year, the BDE [student council] was able to join the FACE 06 [Federation of Student Corporations and Associations], while MEDMUN [Mediterranean Model United Nations] welcomed students from Nice as well. We need to encourage and develop such initiatives.

I am quite optimistic when I see the manner in which the Prefecture of the Alpes Maritimes département has paid homage to second year students who will soon leave the campus.

This shows that the département is not only centered in Nice, and that the ties between the Prefecture and the students are not limited to questions of titre de séjour.

I feel that these are small steps toward the reinforcement of the integration of Mentonese students in the student and university fabric of the Alpes Maritimes.  There as well, there is some work to do.

I would also like to draw your attention to the fantasy that can be student life in Paris.  Certainly, Menton is a town of 30,000 inhabitants, with cultural activities more limited than elsewhere, and fewer conferences than in Paris.  However, when you are a student in Paris, you have fewer chances to live in the 6th or 7th arrondissements, a few minutes’ walk from Sciences Po.  To study in Paris is to integrate the time and cost of daily commutes, which is not the case for the students of the campus of Menton. On the campus in Paris, certain classes are held from 7:15 to 9:15 PM because of the number of students and very busy schedules, and this limits extracurricular life.  In addition, Parisian cultural life has a cost.

Concerning conferences, there are more than 6000 students at the Paris campus. In proportion to the number of students, there is still a non-negligible intelletual and cultural activity, as well as a significant number of conferences on our campus.

However, for the conferences that we have organized throughout the year, and moreover that we have opened to the public, we have never had a full amphitheater of 200 students.

There is a reality of the isolation of the campus, it would be ridiculous to say the contrary, but one must balance this remark. There are also advantages: A magnificant campus, 98% of students do not have transportation fees, we must capitalize on this.

There is however, within the student community, a feeling of not receiving enough support, from the town as well as from the administration. The question of financing associations returns regularly to the CVC. They struggle to obtain financing.  How can you respond to this problem?

In speaking of the fact that we do not sufficiently help associations, there are many things to take into account:  Financial aid and aid in kind.

Today, the campus has four historic and permanent associations: The BDE, the BDA, the AS [today the BDS – Bureau des Sports], and Babel Initiative, which are associations recognized by the law 1901. They receive an annual subsity of 1000€ from the campus, in addition to financial aid or aid in kind for certain projects.

Typically, for the BDE who organizes the Gala at the end of the year, the campus financially supports the apéritif:

Selfie with Bernard El Ghoul during Nice Prefecture cocktail, by Chiara Ayad.

Selfie with Bernard El Ghoul during Nice Prefecture cocktail, by Chiara Ayad.

The campus offers champagne to the students for the occasion of the Gala, which has been done traditionally for many years.

This is an aid in kind that provides good grace. When Babel organizes their colloque, it is the campus who, in kind, pays for the plane tickets, the transportation from the airport, and the hotel stay for the speaker; and who pays for the coffee breaks during the event.

When MEDMUN – who does not have association status [they have been granted it for this coming year] – takes place, it is the campus who pays for the transportation and accommodation fees for the speakers, and for printing documents for the event. Similarly, when the BDA organizes its Semaine des Arts, Sciences Po offers – free of charge, and this is normal – the necessary spaces, and opens the campus when it must be opened on Saturdays in response to specific requests. I could quantify how much it costs us to open the campus, in supplementary hours during the weekend. So you cannot simply say that you are not helped enough. We help, to the extent of what we can do.

We can also work with each association to refine the forms of financing. We have recently received a legitimate demand from the association As’solidaire – which is an association 1901 – to obtain a seat at the CVC. When the AS [BDS] asked us to financially contribute to the Collégiades, we did it. Last year, for your information, since the BDE and AS [BDS] were concerned, the campus asked for a budgetary advance of 10,000€ from the financial department of Sciences Po, which is the cost of a Boutmy scholarship.

It is also a year of tuition…

Of course, you see it like that, i see it in another sense.  It is a year of tuition for a non-European student, firstly, who has the means to finance that. Besides, on a campus like that of Menton, 32% or 33% of students are scholarship students.

10,000€ in tuition is a lot of money, but at the international level it is very low. And it is only 10,000€ because Sciences Po is sponsored 50% by the French state, therefore if you want it is the French taxpayer who pays for the students, whatever their nationality, starting with non-European students.

This year again, the campus has allocated 3000€ in addition to the 1000€ subsidy, which was transfered to the AS [BDS] for the Collégiades. So there are certainly things that could be improved, but there are considerable efforts, especially financially, that are done for the student associations.

The problem that we are facing today is that there is an increase of student initiatives with different legal statuses – MEDMUN, Yaumena, other associations that do excellent things and that all contribute to the standing of the campus.

Now, it will be at our expense to clarify a certain number of rules so that the different student intiatives can be treated equally.

So next year, you will set up a more transparent system for financial allocations to student associations?

Absolutely. Firstly, we will no longer function in the form of grants. This system is not efficient.

For this reason, we will favor a student-initiated approach.  We will function so that at the beginning or end of the school year, each association leader will send us a budget, which we will subsequently examine.

Secondly, in fairness between projects, we will define a clearer chart; for example, the precise number of photocopies allocated to each initiative. We also need to have these rules, but it has not been done so far because of a lack of time, and we have responded on a case by case basis, with failures sometimes.

In particular, when Le Zadig asked us for color photocopies, we never said no.

Unfortunately, I was gone and before making a decision, Jessica or Jessy logically sent me the information for confirmation. I had to take time to answer, and in the meantime you published Le Zadig with a sheet indicating that we had refused to make the photocopies.

Beyond the fact that it was not particularly correct, it is normal that you, as a newspaper, consider printing issues as a priority.

We will therefore establish clearer rules based on requests that we received this year – and they are not unrealistic requests.

The students are still very reasonable and do not formulate extravagant demands.

Then, you must have a clear idea of what you need per semester or per year. These are things that we can discuss together, and it should not be a problem.

So we can describe this as the passing of an operation from “ad hoc” to “rule of law.” It is a change also encouraged by Paris?

Absolutely. In Paris, the DVU [Direction de la Vie Universitaire – Department of University Life] is the kingpin of community life and administrative relations between Sciences Po and student associations.

Today, the DVU is  fully in this dynamic of reflecting by project and by budget much more than by grants, because financial needs are not the same for all associations.

In addition, there are natural needs that the campus can fully take over, and which can be returned to the more general function of the campus of Menton.

It is for this reason that the DVU regularly puts into place committees to study current student projects and to allocate funds to them.  This is done in collaboration with the entire campus, but one thing is certain:

The associations present on campus must turn either to the campus or to the DVU; but they cannot accumulate both forms of aid because of equality concerns for associations based in Paris especially.

How do you perceive your mission as the Menton campus director? Does priority goes to Sciences Po’s prestige, or to a dynamic and healthy student life on campus?

I cannot really express any priority, since my duty as director has many aspects. Firstly, an educational one, closely tied to the academic advisors, and under the direction of the Dean of the Collège Universitaire. I am in charge of enforcing Sciences Po’s educational orientation and implementing the campus’s linguistic and cultural specificity – that is to say, hiring professors.

Are you also in charge of the evaluating the professors throughout the semester?

Indeed, there is a mid-semester delegate’s meeting in which the educational supervisor – Jérémy Weynands this year – or myself gathers the students’ requests. It enables us to react quickly and solve potential problems. Finally, we also take care of the students’ evaluations of their professors.

Then, the educational supervising team and myself take care of student applications and promoting the campus within the MENA [Middle East and North Africa] region, in close collaboration with the DAIE [Direction des Affaires Internationales et des Echanges – Department of International Affairs and Exchanges]. We put together a mission outline to divide up the tasks. We attend exhibitions and go to many high schools within the MENA region, because it is the breeding ground of our students.

The third aspect of my work lies in campus life, especially organizing events and inviting speakers for conferences through the year. Finally, we are in charge of following up on student initiatives.

I admit I sometimes put some distance between myself and those initiatives, simply because of a lack of time.

This is why Lamiss Azab deals with Yaumena and Babel Initiative, while Jérémy Weynands takes of care of the BDE, etc.

We might need further clarification as the number of student initiatives rises on campus. What is left of my mission then is all the administrative tasks, communicating with local partners, budget, financial issues, etc.

Hence, I cannot draw any priority.

Our campus is small; consequently, we have to be as multidisciplinary as we ask our students to be.

We are a small team of seven people, with a great set of shared tasks. This way, any of us is relatively able to answer a question you might ask.

The good thing is that we are all roughly aware of the situation. However, if there is a lack of communication, the answers to different requests may diverge.

Wouldn’t it be more convenient to extend the campus’s educational team? We have as many academic advisors as when the campus was founded, when there were less than fifty students enrolled…

Annick Lutigneaux, our former administrative director, has retired. Since she wasn’t replaced, we decided to split her tasks between the rest of team. We still manage to run the campus. Seven people for 250 students [close to 300 today] remains a good ratio.

However, there can still be gaps, in the library, for example. We noticed that the library is not solely dedicated to academic research anymore. It shows that we need a permanent librarian, beyond Mireille Fomenko’s presence twice a month, because it is an actual profession that students cannot carry out. Therefore, we have decided to organize short training sessions to educate students about academic research. We would set them up one month after the begining of classes, when students need to know how to use the library, rather than during integration week, when everyone is less focused.

We will not increase the size of our team. However, I think that more rules could help us clarify things for students.

You complain that the administration lacks transparency, that we operate in a back office, that there is favoritism, etc. From our perspective, we argue that students are always asking for more and are never happy or satisfied. Both of our points of view are legitimate. All this is nothing but a matter of communication and clarification, and fixing it will save us time.

In the framework of Babel’s journey to Turkey, several students questioned the meaning of our campus’s name. As the Italian track failed and is going to be replaced by a Turkish track, what is the future of the “Mediterranean” aspect of our studies?

This is a very good question. I pushed for the Italian track to allow French, Italian, or Italian-speaking students to resume taking courses in Italian – following Nancy’s German model – while learning Turkish or Hebrew as beginners two hours per week. However, we faced two issues: This program didn’t raise as much interest as we expected outside of France – especially in Italy.

In addition, the students who were enrolled in the Italian track were not fully satisfied, especially because of the lack of clarity regarding their third year abroad.

Indeed, while their classmates were taking intensive Arabic courses, bearing a clear third year destination in mind within the Arab world, the Italian track was left with very few choices. Consequently, we realized that this track didn’t have the right format. Besides, we didn’t get enough applications last year to resume the program.

However, the Turkish track is not meant to “fix” this failure – of which I carry the full responsibility. Our campus is the Middle East and Mediterranean campus, not the Arab world campus.

Arabic has been our main language so far. We opened Turkish and Hebrew optional classes this year, which was a really good thing. However, there is now a strong willingness from students to learn more Turkish in order to spend their third year abroad in Turkey. We are glad the students are choosing this country, because it is relatively stable compared to the rest of the MENA region, and also has excellent universities – Boğaziçi, Koç, Galatasaray, Bilkent, and many other Sciences Po partners.

Therefore, we seized the opportunity, with the Dean’s consent, to add an intensive Turkish course next year to the existing intensive Arabic course.

In addition to that, and this is Le Zadig exclusive news, I inform you that we are going to create a third track in Farsi. Starting next September, students will get to choose between three intensive language courses: Arabic, Turkish, and Farsi.

Progressively, we want to reinforce the geographic opening of our courses, using a linguistic window. We started to do so through Winter School, where we offered a course about Turkey and another about Iran. In the upcoming years, we wish to develop a thematic offer to match the linguistic one. Thus, we will need to introduce more courses focused on Turkish and Iranian cultural and civilization issues.

And that of the Maghreb too, one day, maybe?

You’re raising an important point that we were able to tackle in a short-term approach, following the availability of professors. For instance, we had an excellent professor a few years ago – Farida Souiah. She gave a great course about the Maghreb that students really enjoyed. We also had an optional class taught by Nabil Mouline about Morocco, while this year we offered Frédéric Volpi’s course, Regime Change in North Africa. We are trying to keep the Maghreb dimension – this year, the students signed up for a Moroccan dialect class for the first time – but it definitely needs to be deepened.

The Maghreb has its own dynamics that must not be narrowed to one out of twelve sessions in a course. However, for now, it remains an availability issue.

Thank you very much for these clarifications. It is a good thing to improve the communication between students and the administration, which is not always fluent.

You must remind your classmates that students are the only reason why we are here.

Our aim is not to crush them, or to stop them from achieving their projects, or forbidding them to use the elevator [laughter].

Nesma Merhoum

After being dramatically deported from Macedonia last year, Nesma is an Algerian French tracker who has made it her life goal to fight against the concept of visas while collecting empty lighters as the same time. She is usually the girl taking pictures of everything with her phone, from exceptional views of different countries to the most random events in her everyday life. Her dream is to be able to speak all the languages in the world, which inspires her to travel everywhere and bring back unique stores. With her phobia of noise, she quietly motivates the entire time to work and produce amazing issues each semester.
Nesma Merhoum

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.