The Parisian School Teaching Future American Leaders

With the inauguration of a luxurious new campus in a 17th-century building, Sciences Po is expanding its domination over the Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood. It is also attracting international candidates – including around a thousand Americans – who already make up half of the school’s students.
© Maris Mezulis/Moreau Kusunoki

How do you offer both academic excellence and easy living? American universities tout the calm atmosphere on their campuses, which are often located far from the hustle and bustle of big cities. But the Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Paris, a temple of humanities and social sciences, has gone in the opposite direction. To strengthen the appeal of its courses through the quality of its student experience, the French “elite factory” is now showcasing the ties between tradition and modernity. Its new campus is halfway between the National Assembly and Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the mecca of the Parisian dolce vita, in an area renowned as much for its intellectual past – from the 18th-century literary salons to the cafés frequented by Sartre and Beauvoir – as its long-standing academic tradition.

Set on a square in the chic seventh arrondissement between the Baroque-style Saint-Thomas-d’Aquin Church and a Haussmannian building, a large glass door opens onto a former school used by the Dominican order. Built in 1682 on the grounds of the royal abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés and turned into military offices in the 18th century, the building has been entirely renovated by architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte. The previously-named Hôtel de l’Artillerie is now known as “1 Saint-Thomas.” After walking past a communal vegetable garden planted and tended by the students, visitors enter a succession of interior courtyards followed by an open-air amphitheater. The surrounding buildings are home to classrooms, a cafeteria, and a library boasting 32,000 books.

This haven of beauty and greenery in the heart of Paris’s historical center had originally drawn the attention of Bernard Arnault. The CEO of the LVMH luxury group was considering using it as the site for his Fondation Louis Vuitton for contemporary art, before opting for the Bois de Boulogne. In the end, Sciences Po bought the building in 2016 for 93 million euros, and the new campus – a “setting for educational renewal” spanning 150,000 square feet – opened in January 2022. “It’s not just an architectural act,” said the school’s director Mathias Vicherat at the inauguration. “It’s also a foundational act.”

A Winning Recipe

After a year spent getting the new campus up and running, the start of the new semester in September 2023 concludes the reorganization of Sciences Po. Until now, the school had been spread across some 20 sites in the French capital, especially near the Boulevard Saint-Germain, the main thoroughfare running through the Latin Quarter. One of these outposts is at 27 Rue Saint-Guillaume, the school’s birthplace, in the former Hôtel de Mortemart. Its owner, the Duchess of Galliera, donated it in 1879 to the Ecole Libre des Sciences Politiques, which had been founded seven years earlier. In the aftermath of France’s defeat by the Prussians, the idea was to renew French thought, make up for the country’s scientific shortfall, and draw inspiration from German and English teaching methods to train a new elite.

Academic excellence, classical heritage, and modern, quiet gardens in the heart of the city all combine to boost the appeal of Sciences Po – an institution that has produced four of the last five French presidents along with diplomats, entrepreneurs, and top journalists. Foreign students, who make up half of the school’s 15,000-strong student body, have picked the right place; once again this year, the school has ranked third among the world’s top universities in the Politics and International Studies category – behind Harvard and Oxford, but ahead of the London School of Economics, Stanford, Cambridge, and Princeton.

© Patrick Tournebœuf/Wilmotte & Associés Architectes/ADAGP, Paris
© Patrick Tournebœuf/Wilmotte & Associés Architectes/ADAGP, Paris
© Patrick Tournebœuf/Wilmotte & Associés Architectes/ADAGP, Paris
© Patrick Tournebœuf/Wilmotte & Associés Architectes/ADAGP, Paris

So how is the Sciences Po model designed? As well as lectures, borrowed from the university system and taught in vast auditoriums by professors working in their fields of study, the school also offers classes in small groups – the famous conférences de méthode, the school’s version of seminars. Attended by around 20 students, these unique classes encourage critical thinking and public speaking. Using ten-minute presentations, students are asked to explain all aspects of a given problem, demonstrating intellectual rigor and honing their ability to summarize information. The curriculum also includes international studies, languages, and sports.

Over the years, Sciences Po has structured itself into seven “colleges,” including law, journalism, and public affairs. The latter was originally introduced to modernize France after World War II, and is now considered the best way to prepare for the entrance exam for the Ecole Nationale d’Administration and a future career in the senior civil service. One unfortunate side effect of this success is that most students admitted to the school are from the upper classes (70% in 2019). Meanwhile, graduates – the “science posers,” as described by their critics – are often tinged with a certain Parisian snobbery and a slightly exaggerated Anglomania that has inspired them to ape debating societies. For many years, the school’s annual celebration was even known as “Sciences Po Day.”

A More Inclusive andInternational School

In the 1990s, the influx of alumni into government ministries and major corporations sparked a public backlash. In an attempt to restore a certain meritocracy, Sciences Po created “bridges” for high school students from disadvantaged neighborhoods and opened regional campuses in Dijon, Le Havre, Menton, Nancy, Poitiers, and Reims, the last of which offers a North American minor. (These branches of Sciences Po Paris should not be confused with the other schools of political sciences present in ten French cities, including Sciences Po Bordeaux, Rennes, and Strasbourg.) In 2021, a new phase of reorganization was launched. The written entrance exam was replaced by an application-based evaluation and an in-person interview, which was designed to be more inclusive. Today, more than a third of students receive financial aid and scholarships, or are exempt from paying fees.

The excellence of Sciences Po, along with its prestigious teaching staff and tuition fees below those of the world’s top universities (up to 14,000 euros per year for a bachelor’s degree, 19,000 for a master’s), naturally attracts international students. “While looking into journalism schools in New York City, I realized that I could have a roughly equivalent, intellectually stimulating experience at Sciences Po for about one tenth of the price,” says Phineas Rueckert, who now works in Paris. Americans like him make up the largest group ahead of Germans, with 20% of the total number of foreign students. The 2022-2023 intake had around 1,000 U.S. students, either on exchange or enrolled for a full course. The school also offers numerous international opportunities including dual degrees in partnership with Berkeley, Georgetown, the University of Pennsylvania, and Columbia as part of the Alliance program, and exchanges with Cornell, Duke, Harvard, Princeton, Johns Hopkins, Northwestern, Rice, and Emory.

Another sign of this special relationship with the United States is the garden on the new Sciences Po campus, named after American philanthropist Rachel Lambert “Bunny” Mellon. This was the condition for receiving a donation of 4.6 million euros from the Gerard B. Lambert Foundation. Boston billionaire Frank McCourt, one-time owner of the Olympique de Marseille soccer team, also has his own plaque. The McCourt Institute, founded in Washington D.C. to democratize tech, opened its French branch at 1 Saint-Thomas in exchange for 25 million euros, and this sponsorship campaign helped finance the renovation work.

While the campus is mainly aimed at master’s and PhD students, it is open to undergraduates. A passageway has even been built between the new site and 13 Rue de l’Université, another Sciences Po hub. This setting designed to foster critical thinking and group work is the latest chapter in the school’s history, and has already won over Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo. “The students who will study here are very lucky,” she declared at the inauguration. “I’d love to be in their shoes.”

Article published in the September 2023 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.