France's leading state-run research university—the Universite Pierre et Marie Curie—has been on the prowl along the U.S. East Coast this week, looking to test its new liberty. Under a law that takes effect in January, UPMC will be one of 20 "autonomous" state schools that for the first time will control their own budgets, hire their own faculty, and—in theory—run their own labs. A new law pushed through last year by Nicolas Sarkozy, despite angry union protests, releases the schools from the education ministry. (Its researchers will no longer be in the pay of the civil service.) It's the first wave in a surge of reform that's supposed to liberate more than 80 French universities.
UPMC President Jean-Charles Pomerol says he can taste the freedom already, although taking control of UPMC's destiny may prove "a challenge." He and his retinue have been prospecting at Harvard and MIT in the Boston area, at NYU in New York, and at the University of Maryland and NIH in the D.C. area, trolling for partnerships and talking up the glories of la vie francaise.
They have met with area alumni, too, hoping to lure a few back home. Pomerol and UPMC Vice-President for Research Jean Chambaz say they want to hire world-class researchers, but there are a few hurdles to clear. One is to get full control of the budget. The ministry isn't entirely ready to let go. Another is to secure a flow of research money once the school is cut free; some fear freedom will come at a price. And a touchy issue is likely to be winning control of university buildings. Persuading the ministry to physically let go of the campus--a valuable chunk of Paris real estate in sight of Notre Dame--is not going to be easy. But Pomerol notes that he needs to have this control to offer lab space to new recruits, for example. And without control of space, it's hard to begin making deals.