This fall a European Civilization class took students to the Palace of Versailles. (Photography by Tom Tian, AB’10)

Paris at 10

The University’s first international center celebrates a milestone.

In 2001, dean of the College John W. Boyer, AM’69, PhD’75, paid a visit to the future site of the University’s Center in Paris—a vast, undeveloped former railyard in the 13th arrondissement, across the street from an abandoned grain mill.

Two other early supporters of the center, French literature professor Robert Morrissey, PhD’82, and Janel Mueller, then dean of the humanities, had come with Boyer to visit the site in the rain. “We were up to our ankles in mud,” says Boyer, “trying to imagine that we were going to be able to build something worthy of the University.”

By fall of 2003, the center—located on the lower floors of two new neighboring apartment buildings—was sort of open, welcoming its first group of undergraduates to do course work in European civilization and French. The following spring, the buildings were fully built, the garden in the courtyard between them had been planted, and the complex made its official debut.

Ten years later, much has changed. The center, which expanded to the lower floor of a third building in 2005, is now 7,200 square feet. But with 250 undergrads coming to study there each year—nearly half the total number who study abroad—it’s full to bursting. The center offers courses in more than 10 fields, including African civilizations, astronomy, mathematics, neurobiology, and human evolution, all taught by UChicago faculty.

The mill across the street has been transformed into the Université Paris Diderot (Paris 7); UChicago students at the center are jointly registered as students in the University of Paris and given University of Paris IDs. Along with the massive Bibliothèque nationale de France, built by President François Mitterrand in 1995, the institutions now form an academic corridor in the 13th arrondissement.

And in a related development, Morrissey, who once stood ankle-deep in the mud, was awarded the French Legion of Honor in 2013.

The center has hosted many conferences, colloquia, debates, and public lectures in the past decade. A dozen graduate students are in residence; faculty from departments throughout the University visit regularly for research, conferences, and teaching.

The center’s focus has also broadened, looking outside France to all of Europe and beyond. When students in the College’s Cairo program had to evacuate during Egypt’s 2011 revolution, they finished the program in Paris. “Paris is an imperial city,” says Boyer, with deep roots in Africa and the Middle East; in the next 10 years, he hopes the center will become a natural base for UChicago academics researching these regions.

On a Friday afternoon in early September, the University celebrated the Paris Center’s first 10 years with a panel discussion about these global ambitions: “Paris-Chicago and Chicago-Paris: A Global Metropolis for Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.” The event—attended by faculty, students, and alumni, as well as representatives from partner institutions and scholars from around the world—was held at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, a two-block walk from the center.

Ian H. Solomon, vice president for global engagement, who had come directly from the inaugural ceremony of the Chicago Booth Executive MBA program in Hong Kong, moderated. Three UChicago faculty joined him: François Richard (anthropology), Ahmed El Shamsy (Near Eastern languages and civilizations), and Lisa Wedeen (political science), as well as Robert Gleave, an Arabic studies professor at the University of Exeter (UK) and 2013 Mellon Islamic Studies Initiative visiting scholar at UChicago.

Wedeen, who is writing a book on the recent political history of Syria, noted that for her, “being in Paris has become crucial,” not just because working in Syria is now impossible. Paris, home to a number of prominent Syrian exiles, “has become a center of artistic activity and political conversation,” she said.

“It’s very difficult to think about Africa without thinking of France,” said Richard, a historical anthropologist whose research on rural Senegal led him to study French imperialism. The history of the French nation in the 18th and 19th centuries was made not just in France, he said, but also in Senegal and Louisiana: “The idea of the nation-state as being bounded is something which to some extent has been rethought.”

After a cocktail reception, the guests had dinner in the library’s Hall des Globes (an appropriate venue, Solomon noted) while listening to Chicago Booth economist Austan Goolsbee deliver a skeptical assessment of the Eurozone: “You’ve got countries locked in at the wrong exchange rates,” he said. “Milton Friedman [AM’33], on his deathbed, said the euro will never survive, because it’s price-fixing. And price-fixing will never last.”

The next morning the celebrations continued with a choice of five lectures, each by a faculty member in a different discipline, followed by an excursion to a Paris institution important to that faculty member’s research.

Three of the five lectures looked beyond French borders. Wedeen spoke on the Syrian uprisings and then led an excursion to the Grande Mosquée de Paris. Anthropologist Alan Kolata, after a lecture on the kings of Angkor, Cambodia, went to the Musée Guimet. Historian Paul Cheney, academic director of the center for 2014–15, talked about 18th-century elites in Saint-Domingue, a French colony in the Caribbean; his tour was of the Archives Nationales.

Françoise Meltzer, after her lecture “Describing the Insane: Baudelaire and the Alienists,” took her group to the Hôpital Pitié-Salpêtrière. Philippe Desan, whose lecture was titled “Montaigne Meets the Cannibals,” led an excursion to the Musée du Quai Branly.

In the 16th century, Desan explained, cannibals from Brazil were brought to Europe and exhibited in freak shows. Among the spectators was Michel de Montaigne, who in his essay “Of Cannibals” imagines himself in their place. At the museum, Desan’s group viewed a cape of feathers (the cannibals’ currency) and a bludgeon they used on their victims—the same artifacts Montaigne saw.

In addition to the Center in Paris, the University now operates centers in Beijing, Delhi, and Hong Kong. Meanwhile, Boyer continues to harbor ambitions for Paris, which hosts UChicago’s most in-demand study abroad programs. “If we had another classroom or two,” he says, “we could easily mount even more programs.”