Bolognese flavoured corruption

July 10, 1998

Reforms in Italy's system of allocating university posts have already been condemned as a step back in time. Domenico Pacitti tells what happened to him

Higher education minister Luigi Berlinguer's statement that Italy's universities have "no tradition of evaluation" raises the uncomfortable question of how tenured posts are allocated if not on merit. It also ultimately undermines the very idea of a credible Italian university.

Professor Berlinguer is making much of his recently approved laws to reform the concorso system - the competitive state examination by which appointments to professorial posts are made (see page 11). But Salvatore Sorrisi, chairman of the largest trade union for university professors, who is completing a three-volume documentation of concorso fiddling, is one of many who have already condemned the reform as "a step 20 years back in time".

In future, associate and full professorship concorsi are to be conducted locally with enormous powers of veto bestowed on the faculty - in the same fashion as researcher concorsi, traditionally the most corrupt and easiest to fiddle.

Bureaucracy reigns supreme. Back in December 1995, 3,491 associate professor posts covering 357 disciplines were advertised in the official gazette. Thirteen of these posts were in English linguistics, where a nine-member commission shortlisted 17 of the original 125 applicants for the examination, which eventually took place in Bologna at the end of May. The statutory two-part exam required each candidate to discuss his or her publications with the commission and, on selecting a sealed envelope containing a title, to prepare within 24 hours an actual lesson to be delivered in English.

Despite having been shortlisted, I failed to be appointed. Colleagues and neutral observers never seriously felt my academic qualifications - eight published books and 20 years' university teaching experience of English, linguistics, American literature and Chinese - had been taken into consideration. It is common knowledge that the exam is simply a recital and that the places have already been decided many months and even years in advance, although no commission will ever admit this.

The decision is final and not open to appeal. The official judgements are sent to the ministry and then to the national universities' council for formal approval, which they invariably obtain.

Even the most patently absurd decisions can be ratified, provided the commission is unanimous and no formal errors have been made, such as a physical failure to leave the door open or to reinsert the questions correctly into their respective envelopes. Predictably, the successful candidates, almost all Italians, turned out to have ties with individual examiners and faculties with vacant posts.

It came as no surprise that my books had not been read, nor had my arguments been understood or listened to with much interest. My examiners were hardly inspiring: those Italian speakers to whom I had the chance to listen had a poorer level of English than many of my students, while the English speakers had lost their linguistic "freshness" after long years spent in a foreign country, although they had clearly acquired the Italian corporative power group mentality.

These impressions were shared by David Petrie, chairman of the Committee for the Defence of Foreign Lecturers, who had been asked to investigate following a number of angry complaints by highly qualified members of his trade union who had not been shortlisted. Our unusual decision to exercise our rights and sit in on some exams caused the commission visible irritation.

We heard one successful Italian candidate change the title of the lesson assigned to her so that she could talk about her own research, and saw another, far more competent but unsuccessful British candidate treated very unfairly.

Books, such as Hands On The University by Felice Froio, have recently been written documenting Cathedropolis, as the Italian press has christened the fiddling of concorsi. Examples abound of entire commissions, and even faculties, placed under arrest and led away in handcuffs following recordings of their deliberations, of candidates sure of winning well in advance who submitted a last-minute plagiarised book or two just to keep the written records right, of jobs for the chairman's lover, the rector's brothers and sisters, the baron's protected pupils, forged signatures - the list is never-ending.

The total lack of moral and social conscience, the principle of exchange of favours, over-concern with power and money, a cynical disrespect of the law and strict observance of the code of silence all legitimate the term "university mafia". The proof that mafia mentality is in the system rather than in the blood is that Italians often lose it after years spent abroad, whereas foreign academics often acquire it after a long spell in the Italian system.

Decrees are regularly brought into force to modify concorso rules that elapse after a matter of weeks once they have fulfilled their purpose of accommodating a powerful baron's son with a post, further demonstrating the alarming role in the promotion of organised corruption played by national law.

Measures would have to include drastically decreasing power and funding, rewarding honesty and penalising dishonesty, demythologising the heroic strain in the national mafia mentality, and discouraging cliques and secret organisations, which in Italy are automatically transformed into mafia. It has been estimated by former higher education minister Stefano Podesta that over 50 per cent of all rectors at any one time are freemasons.

A European Union move towards derecognition of Italy's universities qua universities would surely shake the ministry and rectors into action. Adding more rules and regulations is merely tinkering.

The new law is a clear signal that Italy has no intention of basing concorsi on merit. But this was to be expected from a parliament, some 40 per cent of whose members are university lecturers. Too many barons' proteges are already earmarked to win concorsi years in the future. To an Italian, a post awarded simply on merit would be unthinkable as it would mean the admission of a possible rebel and the loss of a grateful baron's return favour.

The new legislation confirms the real object of single university autonomy to be a sell-out to the barons and a reduction of ministerial work and responsibility. Undisciplined Italy needs a centralised system, but an efficient and rigorous one.

Domenico Pacitti teaches English language and American literature at the University of Pisa.

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