The Alliance of French and American Universities

The Alliance Program, a partnership between Columbia University in New York and three French institutions – Ecole Polytechnique, Sciences Po and Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne University – has awarded 700 dual-degrees in the past ten years. Each one of these graduates spent half of their schooling in Paris and the other half in New York, making their education an equal product of both countries.
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This opportunity began in 2002, when the four universities established a relationship that included student exchanges and dual degree programs. In 2007, an endowment was created with the support of the French government that gave the Alliance the additional resources it needed to fund visiting professorships and joint-research grants. By 2013, the endowment fund had over $3,000,000. Alessia Lefébure, director of the Alliance Program for the last six years, spoke with us in New York recently, just after she left the program to become the Dean for Academic Affairs for the French National School for Public Health in Paris and Rennes.

: Can you explain briefly what the Alliance Program covers?

Alessia Lefébure: Alliance covers all the range of things that two universities can do together: exchange, dual-degree, research, visiting professors, joint supervision of PhD, and even staff exchange. For example, the communications division of Science Po came to New York in the past to observe how Columbia’s communications team operated – how they dealt with the press, how they communicated with students, how they used video.

What is it about the French-American relationship that makes this cross-country collaboration possible?

First, in the sphere of academia, France has an historical weight that other countries don’t have. In the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, there was a strong cultural influence of the French toward the Americans. A lot of people who are now senior faculty are still influenced by what they have read about the French in the past. The second reason is that the French have a tradition of a government that favors the top-down approach. The French government co-funded this program to cultivate its soft power in America. If the French higher education system is visible in the United States, that will help military collaboration, economic collaboration, etc.

Why do these four universities work so well together?

Columbia University, Ecole Polytechnique, Sciences Po and Paris 1 University are very different but they share a quest for excellence. Each tries to have the best students and the best faculty. They want to be cutting-edge, they always want to be a little bit further. And of course, all four attach a huge value to international exposure of their students. 

Are there any differences in the way these universities operate?

The role of the public system is much stronger in France than it is in the United States. Most French universities are funded by the state and the government has a word to say in their governance. There is no Minister of Higher Education in the United States while there is one in France. Additionally, most French schools don’t have the freedom to set their tuition level or choose the criteria to select their students – they’re obliged to take any applying student. Their faculty members are civil servants so they cannot negotiate a personalized contract. This is a very strong obstacle for the French universities to take a role in the international market of higher education. With a student population that benchmarks all over the world comparing services, big names and faculty, the French cannot always follow because of their national regulations. They cannot offer more money to attract renowned professors for instance. Hence the importance of an alliance like ours.

What value do students gain from spending time in these two different systems?

Many American universities think that they are already international because their faculty is international, their curriculum is international and their students are international. As a result, they don’t encourage study abroad. But if you don’t spend time in another system, you won’t really understand that the world is not always like what it is in your own country. The only way to really learn that things can be different and to learn how to criticize lessons from your country, your parents and the people who have surrounded you, is by going to another place. Students might challenge their beliefs or reinforce them but at least they know. There are also very practical reasons to encourage study abroad such as gaining language abilities, especially for students thinking about a global career.

How do you see the Alliance program moving forward? Do you see the program expanding or is it best as a small community?

We have been solicited by universities in Asia and in Europe to expand the partnership. But perhaps the future is not that the Alliance becomes larger but that other universities choose the same model and do other things with other partners. It could be a model for other schools.