Richard Descoings, higher education innovator, found dead in New York

Richard Descoings, the innovative and charismatic head of the French Institute of Political Studies, died on Tuesday in New York where he was due to attend a United Nations conference for university leaders.

Director for 16 years of the institute in Paris known as Sciences Po, Descoings (53) profoundly changed the elite institution through a series of controversial reforms that opened access to students from disadvantaged backgrounds, means-tested fees, increased the proportion of foreign students to 40%, and created six provincial offshoots. He was elected to serve a fourth term as head in 2011.

He was a member of France’s state council, the country’s highest legal body, and three years ago was appointed by President Nicolas Sarkozy to lead a commission into the future of the lycée (upper secondary education), which led to reform in 2010.

Sarkozy paid tribute to Descoings and his “exceptional career of a great servant of the state who devoted all his life to the cause he had chosen, and from which nothing had diverted him: education”.

Descoings had “contributed more than anyone else of his generation to the influence of French higher education”, said a statement from the president’s office.

Minister for Higher Education and Research Laurent Wauquiez said Descoings’ “dynamism and enthusiasm, and also his interest in new ideas gave him the strength to review many fixed ideas, the strength to shake up old practices and the will to put forward innovatory or pioneering systems, especially those to diversify recruitment to his school”.

Reports said colleagues had tried to telephone Descoings on the morning of 3 April, when he failed to attend the opening of the UN’s Colloquium of University Presidents at Columbia University in New York where he was representing France. Staff entered his room where he was found dead at about 13.00 local time.

Early reports said there was no sign of a break-in and that police had not found evidence of a criminal act.

Science Po’s website bears a photograph of its director with the simple message: “Thank you, Richard Descoings.”