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Innovation & Design

La Sorbonne mis?rable

In a moment of branding suicide, the illustrious

Sorbonne -- a name now 747 years strong -- was broken up into

separate universities sadly called Paris 1, Paris 3,

Paris 4, Paris 5, and so on. Descartes' spirit must have

left the room when it was decided that Paris 2 would not

be part of this series??.

France is not the only country to go through such excess

of governmental bureaucratic interventions; both Britain

and Italy, for instance, also gave numbers and acronyms

to state-owned companies. Still, the universities of

Cambridge and Bologna somehow have managed to avoid such


The so-called revolution of 1968,

where university students took to the streets of Paris,

led two years later to a circumvallated reform. If

philosopher Raymond Aron concluded that the reform was

necessary, failure then must be found in its execution:

The five departments of the former University of Paris

"were split and then re-formed into thirteen

interdisciplinary universities. Four of these new

universities now share the premises of the Sorbonne[...].

Three universities as true 'heirs' to the original have

kept the Sorbonne name as part of their official title:

Paris-Sorbonne (Paris IV), the New Sorbonne (Sorbonne

Nouvelle, Paris III), and the Panth??on-Sorbonne (Paris

I). The Sorbonne premises also house part of the Ren??

Descartes University (Paris V) [...]." In short, the

Sorbonne was publicly guillotin??e.

A visit to the portal of Sorbonne confirms that the noble

institution still lacks brand management to steward its

image. This site spreads itself too thin and is

everything to everybody. It ignores the most elementary

principals of branding and usability, and the hierarchy

of information is thoroughly absurd. Among the four

Sorbonne universities listed, we chose to pursue the

Universit?? Paris IV Sorbonne for review.

Although the website design of Paris IV Sorbonne seems

appealing -- it nicely blends modernity with tradition -- the

usability is again a weakness. At the very least, the

most important selections -- University, Studies, Research,

and Student Life -- are positioned front and center. The

visitor however is presented with an array of uncaptioned

pictures, which are so small, they should be called

pinky-nail rather than thumbnail. Equally small and

randomly placed is a slide show floating near the top of

the screen that acts as a navigation menu, but instead

proves to be thoroughly impractical.

Another menu covers the International, Documentation,

Cultural Life, and News selections, with a two-inch

scrolling bar below that reads Rentr??e 2005. Why this is

scrolling is unclear to us.

Adding to the confusion, the button "Enterprise Area"

stands on its own, in the middle of the page; Majors &

Degrees is positioned vertically (that is, at a 90 degree

angle). All these are cute ideas, but they just don't


Clicking on the first main button probably reveals the

malaise that challenges the university as a whole. At the

top comes a word from the President, followed by a

directory of Vice-Presidents and Faculty Representatives,

then the Bylaws of the University, the Org Chart, and

Statistics. In sum, it puts the customer too much at the

bottom and the boss too much at the top.

We would like to consider all the mitigating reasons to

soften our negative conclusions. French universities

largely depend on state subsidies and are notoriously

under-funded. Considering the global competition, in

academia and otherwise, it is perhaps a miracle that

French universities still compete as well as they do. A

long tradition of devotion to intellectual development,

of both faculty and staff, is certainly a major driver

explaining the performance of French universities.

However, the branding and customer-focus issues discussed

in this review are not a matter of money. They are

largely a matter of strategic vision, management

attitude, and organizational processes.

With all due respect, this must be one of the most

mismanaged websites that we have reviewed. Can it be

turned around? Here lies the irony: Not without serious


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