The Rome public prosecutor has formally opened an investigation into alleged corruption in assigning university posts. According to unconfirmed reports, a number of Italy's most powerful academic baroni are under investigation for "fixing" competitive exams.
The authorities suspect that competitive exams for university posts were fixed to share out posts among the proteges of leading professors. This suspicion has surprised nobody familiar with Italy's state university system. In many examining panels senior professors agree beforehand to assign the available posts to each other's pupils.
So in a four-man commission assigning eight posts each member of the commission might have two posts available for their favourites. The system could also operate more flexibly, with the favours offered and returned at different times and places.
The investigation took off last week after months in which scores of complaints were filed with various authorities. They invariably denounced exams in which candidates with a minimum of qualifications were chosen, while others with a wealth of experience, publications and so on, were passed over. Rome magistrates have been examining these reports for some time.
Among the wealth of evidence of malpractice is an anonymous letter circulated a year ago that accurately forecast who would obtain which post, months before the actual exams. It also explained in detail how the posts were shared out among "centres of power" within the university system.
The spoils system in assigning academic posts had already been denounced by Stefano Podesta, who until the recent fall of the Berlusconi government was university minister.
"There are chairs that have become virtually hereditary," he thundered. "We cannot go on having people who become professors because they are the offspring or mistresses of the baroni."
The judicial inquiry promises to snowball as more and more complaints are filed, and Italian newspapers have already dubbed it the "Clean Chairs investigation" after the "Clean Hands investigation" that in two years demolished Italy's corrupt political party system.
* Exhausted by the strain of being a national hero, Judge Antonio Di Pietro, who spearheaded the "Clean Hands" investigation, took a lectureship at the newly founded Castellanza University, a private institution financed by the businessmen's association of Verese, a prosperous province outside Milan.
This month, however, soon after Di Pietro began preparing a series of lectures, newspapers revealed that Antonio Bulgheroni, president of the university and a prominent entrepreneur, has been charged with making pay-offs to politicians for public contracts.