- Happy Birthday Vincennes!The University of Paris-8 Turns Forty
This past January, the Université de Paris-8 kicked off a year-long celebration of its founding forty years ago.1 Most people outside France probably couldn't pick Paris-8 out from the twelve other serially-numbered universities of Paris, and for those who can, its incandescent 1970s heyday is fast fading in memory. And many of the visiting Anglophone academics whom I had occasion to tour around the university in the seven years I taught there no doubt wondered what exactly there was in this stripped down, graffiti-covered, dilapidated suburban campus worth commemorating. All the more reason, then, to revisit Paris-8's decidedly uncommon history, an improbable journey equal parts lofty idealism and bitter disappointments, intellectual adventure and political tragicomedy.2
Paris-8 was born, as much spiritually as institutionally, in the maelstrom of May 1968. No sooner had the Quartier Latin's cobblestones been tapped back into place and the riot police returned to their barracks, than president Charles de Gaulle confided the red-hot portfolio of education minister to Edgar Faure along with a mission to modernize France's university system and forestall another student insurrection. Pragmatic centrist, cagey veteran of a dozen postwar cabinets, professor of law, and sometime author of detective novels, Faure saw reform as a means to fuse technocratic innovation with the spirit of May - or as he put it before the National Assembly, 'If those who claim to possess imagination have not seized power, it remains for power to seize imagination'. Leery Gaullists cried dangerous indulgence towards gauchistes, but the minister could count on de Gaulle's full support in his efforts to free France's universities from the heavy hand of Ministry oversight, give both faculty and students a voice in university governance, and encourage interdisciplinarity. Pressured to expand enrolments, Faure got to work on plans to create several new experimental universities, including one slated to rise on a stretch of the Bois de Vincennes which the city of Paris had been renting to the army.3
Meanwhile, a thirty-one year old single mother of two who had just completed a doctorate on James Joyce and who was teaching English literature at Nanterre when May 68 erupted, caught wind of the Ministry's project. Hélène Cixous would go on to become not only a celebrated [End Page 206] feminist, playwright, poet, literary critic and translator, but also Vincennes' most emblematic figure. She had nearly quit the academy altogether in discouragement when she resigned from the ossified University of Bordeaux three years before, but fellow-anglicist, director of the Institut d'anglais and progressive vice-doyen of the Sorbonne, Raymond Las Vergnas had talked her into taking up a professorship at the Sorbonne's Nanterre annexe. It was Las Vergnas, promoted doyen in the weeks following the May uprising, who tipped Cixous off to Faure's plans. Cixous, along with other left-leaning colleagues associated with the Institut d'anglais (notably Bernard Cassen and Pierre Dommergues) who all knew and admired the American university system, dreamed of creating the same close faculty-student contact and freewheeling intellectual discussion in France. Las Vergnas relayed their vision to the minister: an avant-garde university, open to non-traditional students, staffed by faculty recruited from outside the narrow paths which traditionally led to academic employment in France, and committed to interdisciplinarity and interactive teaching. Faure loved the project, and Cixous' group suddenly found themselves in charge of creating a new university out of thin air.4
And all at breakneck speed. Ground was broken in late August in the hopes of being open for business by the end of the year. Supervised by Cassen and Dommergues, contractors worked round the clock for three hectic months to build a modern, American-style campus the likes of which France had never seen: seminar-rooms rather than lecture halls; language labs, computer facilities, closed-circuit televisions in every classroom to broadcast programmes recorded in the university's own studios; and a daycare centre and kindergarten to serve employees and students with children alike.5
A faculty needed to be...