Eminent social scientists back ‘threatened’ foundation

More than 20 eminent international philosophers and social scientists have signed an open letter backing France’s Fondation Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, or FMSH, and its former president Michel Wieviorka.

FMSH has a private-law statute, and is recognised as an institution in the public interest. It is linked to the Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation, and is mostly funded by the state.

Created in 1963 on the initiative of historian Fernand Braudel to support the human and social sciences, it provides a platform for national and international collaboration between institutions, researchers and across disciplines. It runs a comprehensive library; a publisher, the Éditions de la MSH; and a service to promote research publications whether or not it has published them.

Wieviorka resigned in July because of serious disagreements with the research ministry over reforms that he claims threaten its unique contribution to promoting the human and social sciences, and following its relocation to Campus Condorcet, a new site grouping together with 11 university and research institutions.

The 23 signatories* to the appeal, published last week (in French) in the journal L’Obs and published in English this week in University World News, say they “write this open letter with sadness and anxiety because the FMSH, and the rich intellectual life it supports, is threatened”.

The signatories include: Craig Calhoun, university professor of social sciences at Arizona State University and former director of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE); Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former president of the International Sociological Association and former president of Brazil; Manuel Castells, professor emeritus, University of California, Berkeley (who is also minister of universities in Spain but signs as a sociologist); Jürgen Habermas, philosopher; Michael Ignatieff, president and rectorof the Central European University in Budapest; Saskia Sassen, Robert S Lynd Professor at Columbia University; and Richard Sennett, professor at LSE and New York University.

They describe the FMSH as “special and influential” among institutions “designed to facilitate research, intellectual debate, collaboration and strong international relations for French scientists”; and quote American social scientist Immanuel Wallerstein who called it “a veritable ‘ministry of international relations of human and social sciences’.”

Wieviorka announced his resignation in July in an article in the newspaper Libération, in which he described the FMSH as “an institution of modest size”, with just 140 employees which had “until now, against the declining trends of the French human and social sciences, acted flexibly and efficiently at an international level”, that invited and welcomed “hundreds of foreign researchers each year” and facilitated “outgoing mobility” for French researchers.

But, he wrote, the ministry had put the foundation under administrative supervision “and contributed to a demolition job where several senior civil servants and a handful of university managers/directors were brought together”.

He continued: “Their technique? They trampled its statutes underfoot, made it undergo predation and isolation, despised qualified personalities who embodied civil society on its monitoring council, stripped away its statutory rights and, finally, emptied it of its statutory direction to make it an agency in the exclusive service of Campus Condorcet.”

Campus Condorcet is a new site grouping together with 11 higher education and research institutions specialising in human and social sciences, following reforms introduced under former French president Nicolas Sarkozy. It is located in Aubervilliers, just outside Paris.

Wieviorka claimed that under the present minister, Frédérique Vidal, “the destructuring of the FMSH was accelerated”. Senior ministry officials wanted to control, and even destroy, the FMSH by taking its funds to make up the Campus’s shortfall, he said.

Accordingly, he had resigned, and FMSH’s two vice-presidents and four members of the board had also left.

His resignation took place six months after a critical report on the FMSH from the Cour des Comptes, the French auditors’ court, was submitted to Vidal. This described the foundation as “an institution in crisis”, with “failing and divided governance”, a “very degraded social climate”, a project that had “lost its influence, attractiveness and its distinctive character”.

It said public authorities had failed to give a strong lead to the FMSH in redefining a plan that was consistent with the overall strategy to give a new boost to the human and social sciences. The ministry had not pushed the foundation, even though it was the main source of funding and it had various means of control at its disposal.

The report criticised the system of allocating a global sum to the FMSH, in operation since 2009. It judged that the foundation’s historic partnerships with other institutions were now “stretched thin”, and its participation in Campus Condorcet was “very ambiguous” with the removal of its library to the site but not all its staff, and its refusal to transfer other activities.

The Cour des Comptes concluded there was an urgent necessity to clarify the future of the FMSH, and recommended that the Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation should make clear as soon as possible the position and role of the foundation and its activities, with priority to completely integrating it as a public institution of Campus Condorcet; or, if it remained an independent foundation, to establish a new five-year contract defining precisely the FMSH’s objectives, and to review the state’s funding methods.

In her reply, Vidal agreed it was time to make a commitment for significant change in the foundation’s operations, with the state, as the main funder, to carry out this step. But she stressed the state did not support the dissolution of the FMSH, as the Cour des Comptes had considered.

She said the state would introduce statutory reform as soon as possible, permitting representation of the ministry in the adapted system of governance. Relations between Campus Condorcet and the foundation must be strengthened, and the Campus allocated all necessary resources to ensure the plan’s success.

The full open letter and list of signatories is published here.