A judicial investigation has begun into 40 competitive exams for more than 100 posts at Italian universities which were allegedly assigned on the basis of patronage and favouritism rather than merit.
More than 100 professori who were on examining boards between the late 1980s and early 1990s are under investigation by the Rome Public Prosecutor's Office. The nationwide probe has slowed new university appointments pending final verdicts, and has opened a heated debate on how the university system should be reformed.
The suspicion is that competitive exams for jobs in Italy's centralised university system were habitually fixed to give the jobs to the pupils, disciples, offspring, relatives, spouses or lovers of the academic baroni who sat on the examining commissions. Under the Italian system, a lecturer is employed by the state system and is then assigned to a vacant post in one of Italy's 60-odd universities. Every so often a commission is formed to choose, say, three political scientists or four orthopaedic surgeons to fill vacancies around the country.
In Italy's universities academic careers largely depend on patronage and nepotism. Members of commissions may, for instance, choose the faithful assistant of another professore on the understanding that their own assistant (or daughter, cousin, etc) will get the next job available.
According to academic pundits, the situation was worst of all in medicine and law, in fact magistrates suspect that even pharmaceuticals firms were exercising influence in favour of candidates known to be favourable to the use of certain drugs or who were already doing research for the companies.
Investigations began a couple of years ago after some rejected candidates filed official complaints with the legal authorities of what they considered grossly biased choices of candidates. When it became clear that the state prosecutor's office was taking these complaints seriously, the trickle of complaints became a flood, affecting many exams in the early 1990s.
Some of the resulting appointments were frozen by the previous government's university minister Stefano Podesta. Giorgio Salvani, minister since January, has instead let the rest stand, pending a verdict in court, to avoid paralysis.
Some academics point out that while many complaints may be justified, others may be sour grapes on the part of rejected candidates. They add that objective parameters, publications, "impact" and "citation" factors or years of experience are not everything, and that final judgement must come from the senior members of the specific field, in other words the exam commissions.
Neither Italy's academic community nor the politicians have yet agreed on what should be done. One idea is the introduction of a system whereby lecturers are chosen by central commissions and put into a national "stable" of professori. The individual universities would then choose their professors, hopefully on merit.
Another idea is for foreign academics to sit as observers on commissions to guard against personal favouritism overshadowing merit.