La Sorbonne misérable

In an act of brand hari-kari, the venerable French learning institution has divided itself into five blandly named universities

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 iconoclasm.

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 Panthéon-Sorbonne (Paris I). The Sorbonne premises also house part of the René Descartes University (Paris V) [...]." In short, the Sorbonne was publicly guillotinée.

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 Université 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 Rentrée 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 deliver.

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 reforms.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.