Professor of public law, education director for French Guiana, director-general for French schools overseeing the education of 12m children – not the traditional career path for the dean of one of France’s most elite business schools. But, says Jean-Michel Blanquer, newly appointed dean of Essec Business School, “maybe they thought it was good to have an outsider with different ideas”.
Though he has only been in the job since July 1, and candidly admits “it is all new for me”, he is not short of different ideas, many of which the 48-year-old Parisian brings with him from previous roles. As head of education for two years in Créteil, a working-class neighbourhood just outside Paris, he worked with students from socially deprived backgrounds. “One of my main projects was the creation of something very like English boarding schools: ‘Eton for the suburbs.’ We built 42 in the past four years.”
It is a marked contrast to the grandes écoles, France’s unashamedly elite institutions. But Prof Blanquer, who was brought up in Paris’s upmarket eighth arrondissement, is confident that academic excellence and social deprivation are not mutually exclusive.
He points to the schemes that Essec has introduced already to provide access to the business school for those from underprivileged backgrounds, but he plans to do more. “We have to invent the second stage of these models.”
The school’s undergraduate degree will help achieve social mobility, he believes, by admitting, at 18, those who do not have access to the two years of preparatory classes (classes préparatoires – or prépa) that usually precede admission to one of the grandes écoles. “I think the BBA [bachelor's degree] is one of the answers. But there is not only one answer.”
There needs to be more compatibility between the universities in France and the grandes écoles, Prof Blanquer argues, and between classes préparatoires and first degrees. “It will work if you take the best of both systems. [The question is] how do we bring together the virtues and eliminate the problems?”
His time in French Guiana has had a strong influence. “It is a very special place, with the reality of the south and the institutions of the north.”
His strategy is for Essec to become what he calls a “world business school”, adding more overseas campuses to the one being built in Singapore. Africa and South America are on the list of potential locations.
This comes at a time when many French business schools are focusing on their role at home, forming alliances with universities and other business schools, often to set up clusters of higher education. HEC Paris, Essec’s main rival, is part of the Paris Saclay cluster. But this route is not for Prof Blanquer. Instead, Essec will sign unilateral alliances with select partners. “It is more like Britain in Europe,” he jokes.
All this is possible because Essec has more independence from the French chambres de commerce, the traditional funders of the country’s business schools, than most. Just 8 per cent of its income derives from the Versailles chambre.
Languages will be increasingly important. “We have to consider English as a core competency,” says Prof Blanquer, but goes further. All Essec graduates should be polyglots and speak three languages. “It is a matter of cultural openness – openness of the mind.” There will also be a focus on including humanities in programmes, to give a more rounded education.
The complex interaction between business schools, chambres de commerce and government means that the job of dean at a French business school is often about political diplomacy as much as academic rigour and fundraising. A law professor by training and a government employee through career choice, Prof Blanquer may hold many of the trump cards.
So, why did he choose Essec? His answer is straightforward, if elitist. While France’s universities are disregarded in the world rankings, its business schools do rather well.
1964 Born in Paris. Masters degree from Sciences Po; PhD in law from Paris II University. Became a law professor
1998 Director of Institute of Latin American Studies, Paris III University
2004 Local education authority director for French Guiana
2006 Deputy head of cabinet for the French ministry of education
2007 Chancellor of the Academy of Créteil
2009 Director-general for schools
2013 Dean of Essec