Claim of 'widespread corruption' in Spain

Scholar believes university is taking proceedings against him for his critical book, writes Paul Jump

May 12, 2011

A Spanish university has denied that disciplinary proceedings against one of its professors are a response to a book he wrote alleging corruption at the institution.

José Penalva, professor of education at the University of Murcia, has been accused of absenteeism and could face dismissal.

He told Times Higher Education that he believed the real reason for the action was a book, published last month, in which he claimed that political influence and nepotism were rife in Spanish universities.

Corrupción en la Universidad (Corruption in the University) describes what Professor Penalva sees as the incestuous relationship between Spanish universities and local politics, which he believes is a major factor in the "mediocrity" of the country's higher education institutions.

"The rector always is a person who has a lot of power in the local community, and is always supported by a bunch of deans and politicians who scratch each other's backs," Professor Penalva told THE.

"This explains why Spanish universities are at the bottom of the international rankings: there is no accountability, so the quality of research is very low," he said.

The book illustrates its point by detailing the harassment to which Professor Penalva alleges he was subjected after he went to court in 2007 to secure a chair at the University of Murcia. He claimed the post had been earmarked for a friend of the rector, Jose Antonio Cobacho Gómez.

Professor Penalva said Spanish universities were legally obliged to advertise academic positions, but that the majority of the members of the selection panels were appointed by the university's rector and the dean of the department in question.

"This explains why 98 per cent of lecturers and professors in Spanish universities are 'local candidates' who have already worked in the department and have a 'godfather' there," he said.

Professor Penalva, who is also a member of Wolfson College, Cambridge, said he had been the most active member of his department in terms of research over the past three years despite being given no office or research funding.

He said he had launched criminal proceedings against various individuals at the university for harassment and other breaches of the law that he alleged were part of a campaign of "threats, insults and envy" against him. He had learned of the latest attempt to expel him in the local press, three weeks after his book was published.

"If you read the book, you'll understand why they really want to expel me: I have broken the 'code of silence' (about corruption)," he said.

However, a university spokesman denied that the disciplinary proceedings had anything to do with the book. "They began long before its publication and, therefore, without knowledge of it," he said.

Inger Enkvist, professor of Spanish at Lund University in Sweden, is writing a review of Corruption in the University.

She described his story as a "textbook case" of what could go wrong in Spanish universities, adding that the situation had been further exacerbated by the fact that pedagogy was an intellectually "weak" discipline, which encouraged the creation of "non-intellectual environments" in education departments.

Professor Penalva said he had received "hundreds" of letters from colleagues all over Spain describing similar situations, which he hoped to collate into another book. He also plans to organise a conference on corruption in academia.

He said the "hardest thing" had been to watch his colleagues "look the other way" over his treatment, for fear of their superiors. He hoped his book would wake people up to the problem of corruption in Spanish universities.

"Sooner or later our country will have to do something, especially considering that we will not overcome the current economic crisis if we do not change our educational system," he added.

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