An academic, also a priest, elected president of the University of Strasbourg

Priest and university president, is it possible? There was no doubt about his election, or almost in these times of electoral uncertainty, Father Michel Deneken has just been brought by 26 votes to 9, with one abstention, at the head of the University of Strasbourg. One of the largest in France, three members of which have won a Nobel Prize over the past five years. Some voices supporting his opponent denounce a breach of secularism or allege a risk of discredit for the establishment. Michel Deneken was already interim president of the University, since September, making up for the departure of Alain Beretz until the election.

Jules Hoffmann and his Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2011, or Martin Karplus and Jean-Pierre Sauvage, respectively awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 2013 and 2016, the nobelists for five years, or Thomas Ebbesen and his Kavli prize in nanosciences for 2012. Some recent names, including those of foreign collaborators, who provide information on the importance of scientific research for the University of Strasbourg. Michel Deneken is now at the head of this public establishment. A choice criticized by the National Union of Scientific Researchers and the National Union of Higher Education for whom “the fact that a priest and theologian […] can be president of a large research university is a very bad signal sent. to the scientific community of our country and to a very divided society on the issue of secularism ”. But also by her rival, Hélène Michel, professor of political science:

“Even if Michel Deneken is not in charge of a parish, one is a priest for life, and subject to ecclesiastical authority. Hence our fears for the reputation of the university but also concerning the content of research. "

The absence of a breach of secularism, but the enhancement of open secularism

On the eve of his election, Michel Deneken, replied: "What if I was elected because I am competent?" What seems strange when viewed from 'France from the inside' becomes normal when you cross the German or Swiss border. The federal student association of Strasbourg, the majority, considers that the ecclesiastical state of the new president does not pose any problem. The president of the representative body of the universities, Jean-Loup Salzmann abounds: “We did not know that he was a priest until then. So that's a pretty good sign. A word enlightening on the impartiality of the new president who will not be the head priest of the university, but priest and president separately, the priesthood being for life, without confusion. Contacted by us, Professor Marie-Jo Thiel, director of the European Center for Ethics Education and Research, University of Strasbourg, confides her satisfaction:

“I am delighted with this election, for many reasons, including that for me of respecting a true secularism, that is to say a secularism that accepts differences! "

French law does not exclude ecclesiastics from the public service, and nothing therefore prevents a professor from the University of Strasbourg from chairing it. Moreover, around the time of the law of 1905 on the separation of Church and State, the government commissioner had specified in his conclusions on the dispute between Abbé Bouteyre and the Minister of Public Education, concerning the right for the clergyman to register on the list of candidates for the competitive examination of philosophy, that if a religious could not teach at the secondary level, there was no objection to him teaching at the university, because the public there was mature enough to form their own view of things. In Alsace-Moselle, because of the Concordat, there are state theological faculties integrated into the University of Strasbourg, and it is as a teacher in this public establishment that Michel Deneken was able to be elected. His personal vision of the world has no impact on the level of research, especially as important decisions are taken collegially.

The risk is elsewhere for the content of the research and the credibility of the University

Would the managerial tropism on a business model be less dangerous for the scientific value of a university than its management by a clergyman who has hitherto shown his neutrality as vice-president and then interim president? This election and these controversies occur at a time when studies are pronouncing on the level of universities. At a time when the concept of business management is more and more advanced for university research, review Nature published on December 14, the day after the election of Michel Heneken, an article on corporate culture in Scandinavian universities, writing in particular: “It is of course desirable, and in the interest of the public, that universities produce innovation and employment as well as beautiful science and quality speeches. But corporate research managers need to understand that the art of science begins with a hint of intuition that the logic of managers 'and directors' manuals cannot necessarily measure. Universities cannot exist without a certain degree of organization and a careful allocation of finite material resources. But science depends on generous creative freedom and a good measure of intellectual rebellion. " Nature opposes this control of the manager on the scientist who limits him, the necessary reconquest of the lost ground (It is time for scientists to regain lost ground).

The same day, INSEE published a document entitled "The development of adult skills: generation effect and life cycle effect", and of which Le Figaro provided a summary, which questions the real value of current diplomas and shows that at age and equivalent diplomas, students and young workers have less rewarding skills, even if a significantly older graduate with the same university level has lower results than the young people in reading and arithmetic, especially because of age. To prosecute an alleged discredit cast on the University of Strasbourg with this election, when the problem is elsewhere and continues to swell, is to be wrong about the subject.

Both the drop in university level, which began upstream with the drop in the baccalaureate level, and the growing management of universities around the world in a liberal mode not very favorable to intellectual freedom, constitute real problems for the future of French universities. The election of a priest by no means. And the international reputation of the University would not lose no more than the fruitful exchanges between the Jesuit Matteo Ricci, astronomer, mathematician, cartographer have closed the door of China to the West : the Italian religious is part of the intellectual history of China.

The possibility of faith and scientific credibility

The Catholic Church has, moreover, not criticized a possible risk of seeing a university president dry up his word as a priest in order to maintain credibility with his public body. If we speak of a risk of confusion at the head of the University, it should also be considered for the priesthood, to the detriment of the Church. But Michel Deneken is respected, makes a difference, and his interim presidency of the University of Strasbourg was not marked by any anti-scientific tropism. It would be a bad judgment on the Catholic Church, when the Pontifical Academy of Sciences includes several Nobel Prize winners who are not necessarily Catholic, and whose president, Werner Arber, a Protestant, was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI without anyone thinking that he was going to introduce the Reform in the Vatican. The object of the Academy is "to promote the progress of mathematical, physical and natural sciences, and the study of epistemological problems linked to them". An institution, bringing together Christians and unbelievers, which has free rein to advance science.

Laurent Lafforgue, holder of the Fields Medal, Nobel prize of mathematics, awarded every four years, makes no secret of his religious convictions, and his skills cannot be questioned. In 2006, this laureate, concerned about questions of pedagogy, gave a conference, entitled "Tradition and fertility: the point of view of a Christian mathematician", at the Catholic Institute, content published by the Institute of Advanced Scientific Studies, during which he held these words:

“Because the foundations of intellectual and artistic life are spiritual, because what it is about is the development of the life that God alone gives and that Christ has promised in abundance, I turn to the Church. What I ask her and what I pray to the Lord for is very simple: since she was promised that death would not prevail against her, I beg her to embark on her ark, to save them from the flood, the forms of the life of the spirit, the humanities, philosophy, literature, the arts, mathematics, physics and all activities of the spirit which have received the grace of orientation towards beauty. "

Ironically in this opposition to the election of a religious, the National Union of Students of France joined forces with the Muslim Students of France to win one of the six student seats.

The University of Strasbourg has 78 research units, and is a center of excellence in the various fields of biology, biotechnology, medicine, chemistry, physics of materials, space sciences, and is internationally recognized for its contributions to the human and social sciences that Misha highlights in particular , or the Interuniversity House of Human Sciences.

Hans-Søren Dag

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