Before Richard Descoings died suddenly and scandalously last week, he made controversial -- and surprisingly successful -- changes to how one of France's most elite universities builds its student body.

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Richard Descoings arrives at the Elysee Palace in 2009 to submit a study on high school reforms. Reuters

France's Institut d'Études Politiques de Paris, known colloquially as Sciences Po, has trained two out of the past three French presidents, four out of the past six prime ministers, countless other assorted politicians and diplomats, and a significant chunk of Europe's top CEOs and financiers. Until 2001, the students who came in were just as socially élite as the graduates who came out.

In 2001, that began to change. The man at the heart of the change was Richard Descoings, who was found dead in a Manhattan hotel last week. And though questions remain about the circumstances of his death, it's his work leading Sciences Po that will surely determine his legacy. He has left promoters of social mobility in education -- both French and American -- plenty to think about.

In the early 2000s, Descoings and Sciences Po introduced what could only be called affirmative action, to predictable controversy. Affirmative action in the U.S. has tended to target race or gender, and any affirmative action policies have to be careful not to run afoul of the Constitution. In a landmark 1978 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that U.C. Davis's medical school had, in setting aside 16 seats for non-white students, violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Some of the justices pointed to conflicts with the Civil Rights Act as well.

The Sciences Po affirmative action program did not and does not involve quotas, nor is it race-based. It aimed to open the school up to underprivileged students  to, in a sense, import them. The school replaced its admissions system with one tailored to individual backgrounds. French applicants could take an entry exam or seek admission on the strength of high grades on the baccalauréat; international applicants would submit a folder with grades and standardized test scores. Meanwhile, 85 secondary schools serving disadvantaged areas were simply told to send over their best students for Sciences Po's review. The school provided whatever financial aid necessary.

Such a bold program was bound to draw fire. Critics accused the school of flashy political correctness, and of losing sight of excellence while focused on cosmetic issues. Even last week, as French papers reviewed the program's legacy, one article suggested Descoings was simply pulling a clever media stunt.

The story of how Descoings justified his demographic educational intervention, and how he made it work as well as it did, might have lessons for anyone looking to make education more democratic and more accessible to students who are disadvantaged by their background. As Descoings and his colleagues saw it, there were "two dangers" in having a leader-training school as homogenous and exclusive as was Sciences-Po. Here's what they wrote in Le Monde back in 2001, explaining their position:

The first [danger] is in weakening the legitimacy of these institutions. That an élite could become synonymous with caste, that the teaching of excellence could appear as a simple machine of social reproduction, and that the republican social contract is not upheld. [...] The second danger concerns the conditions themselves. In being mixed [only] with similar students, the students of this selective education will only have a partial experience of the realities to which they are not exposed. One fears that they will ignore entire swaths of French society for want of having been confronted, in the course of their education, with the otherness of those who have a different cultural and social origin.

The problem with a student body that comes almost exclusively from a privileged background, in other words, is that this "one percent" could become a permanent and hereditary one percent. Entrenching privilege is undesirable on its own, but it also means that the leaders of tomorrow will have no direct experience with the people they are governing. This was a serious concern for Sciences Po at the time. According to French paper Le Monde, between 1987 and 1997, the "proportion of children from the upper social classes" in the school went from 77% to 81.5% -- not quite the trend you want to see in our supposedly egalitarian and meritocratic age.

But did the Sciences Po program, to erode the upper class's iron grip on the school by importing more students from humbler backgrounds, actually work? There's limited evidence that it did, at least on a small scale. Only 860 students have been admitted to Sciences Po through the disadvantaged-student channel since its establishment. That said, students on scholarship now represent 26% of the student body relative to an earlier 6%, and Le Figaro, which reported these numbers, also found that the current proportion of students from the upper classes is 68%, a marked drop from the 1990s.

And the students appear to be excelling. Last fall, Sciences Po's Center for the Americas head, Peter Gumbel, told The New York Times that the dropout rate "is marginal," with roughly 90% of the students admitted through the special channel graduating after three years and 63% fully employed after graduation -- seven percentage points above average for the school as a whole. In other words, the disadvantaged students are more likely to secure full-time work, even at a time when the French economy is suffering, than their average peer at this elite-dominated school.

Those results are even more impressive when you compare them to U.C. San Diego's affirmative action program, as reported in an academic journal article  in 2005. Students admitted under the university's affirmative action programs earned GPAs that were, on average, 0.30 points lower than non-affirmative action students; only 57% graduated, as compared to 73% of non-affirmative action students. The study noted, "when compared to students just above the regular admissions cutoff, the differences are smaller," but conceded that the results were still there and still negative. Sciences Po's success could be due to what has been billed as an aggressive tutoring program for its affirmative action students. It could be due to Sciences Po simply being a more elite school with more resources at its disposal. It could also be due, as Descoings himself suggested last fall, to the admissions program's search for "intellectual potential, rather than just performance on exams" (a lesson for education in general, perhaps).

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In the wake of Descoing's death, tributes have been pouring in from Sciences Po students. Among them have been those affirmative action students. tOne French journalist who spoke to some of them reported that every one "recognizes that the entry to Sciences Po has changed the course of their lives." They also reported feeling that they suffer from being overly identified with the affirmative action program, however.

These students are a major part of Descoing's legacy; a high-profile demonstration of an affirmative action program that appears to bear few of the usual flaws associated with such efforts. Whether he capitalized, as critics allege, on the program in the media is irrelevant, so long as the results haven't been falsified. 

For citizens of France or America or any other country to think through how they feel about affirmative action, they need prominent cases where the statistical interference -- students who are given a leg up in admission, then denied sufficient support in their new environment, for example -- can be filtered out. And for supporters of affirmative action, Sciences Po offers a tantalizing suggestion that you really can have it both ways: high standards and affirmative action-driven diversity. If Descoings was right, Sciences Po has been selecting students based on their potential performance rather than current performance, which after all is colored by their environment, which is itself a product of factors such as class and race. That also means the school has been snatching up underprivileged students who are, aside from the handicaps of their background, just as smart as the students admitted through the regular process.

That alone is not going to bring down the legal barriers to some forms of affirmative action in the United States. Nor should it, necessarily. And, frankly, until there's a larger sample size, the jury is probably still out even on the successes at Sciences Po. But it's hard to find a better case for stimulating discussion or providing policy models and anti-models. Given America's current preoccupation with social stratification, identity politics, and the ultra-privileged, it's hard not to agree with Descoings' and Sciences Po's general point: we could all stand to confront  "the otherness of those who have a different cultural and social origin."

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