by Brooks Fleet
I’d like to announce that I’m writing un roman fantastique situé dans le milieu universitaire. In it, the director of an educational institution understands the nuances inherent in structures of power and oversees an administration who adequately fulfils their prescribed role as a supportive resource for the students. Ne serait-ce pas affriolant?
In November 2019, IHEID Director Philippe Burrin stated in an interview with Le Temps* that he was perhaps interested in writing a pornographic novel set in a university after leaving his current position. Earlier this year his words sparked a discussion in the student body, and many called for a discussion with Burrin.
Through GISA, Burrin issued a statement where he questioned the student body’s ability to understand irony and denied accusations of lacking respect for “certaines sensibilités dans cette maison”. Based on the dialogue/online discussion within the student body a few months ago, I emphatically believe that we did understand the quote as it was stated. Regardless of the accuracy of our understanding, many of us have made it clear that the statement made us uncomfortable – and as the director of this institution, it is his responsibility to take concerns from the student body seriously, especially when brought forward so insistingly by so many. Instead, he dismisses our outrage as “sensitivities” and questions our linguistic abilities. How do you say gaslighting in French?
In an email on April 1, 2020, GISA sent an email to the IHEID community saying that “On April 6th, GISA shall be hosting a 1-hour online discussion about Mr. Burrin’s Le Temps interview comments, publication of the interview, reactions, and the way forward. Director Burrin shall be the main guest. We invite any (and only) IHEID community members to submit anonymous questions in advance and/or to attend the live discussion next Monday.” It is problematic that Burrin would have had the ability to field questions before the event even started. Where is the accountability for this system?
Nonetheless, the Q&A never happened. As the COVID-19 crisis developed, the administration canceled this discussion saying through GISA that “due to conflicting schedules and the ongoing situation the Director has conveyed his unavailability on the said date.” I replied to this email and asked when the discussion was being rescheduled, but I was informed that it had not been rescheduled. To me, it seems ludicrous that no other time could be found for a one hour discussion in the last month.
The core of this issue is not just that Burrin made inappropriate comments for someone in his position but that he has shown a flagrant lack of interest in answering the concerns of the students. Rather, he rebuffs our call by saying that we simply do not have the capacity to understand his soutenu irony. This situation is just one example of the administration’s disinterest in hearing student concerns. And, frankly, it connects with the Institute’s inability to appropriately respond to reported cases of harassment and discrimination. Finally, Burrin’s gaslighting resonates with the men of the student body defending Burrin’s comments and calling the students concerns puritanical (see Facebook circa February 2020).
It is scandalous that Philippe Burrin has eluded any accountability for his words and actions. As IHEID welcomes a new director, the administration needs to establish a clear process for holding this person and themselves accountable. It is important for us as a student community to remember this sequence of events and continue to bring it up until his unacceptable words are solidified in his legacy.
Brooks Fleet is a second year MIA student. You can find Brooks on Twitter @mbrooksfleet.
*Editor’s note: The complete article mentioned on Le Temps is placed behind a paywall. However, it has been republished in full on the Graduate Institute website on 30 November 2019.