Outraged by yet another nepotism and malpractice scandal in an official concorso (competitive exam) to assign a teaching post, Italy's University Minister, Fabio Mussi, has undertaken to appear as plaintiff in all future criminal trials in cases of this kind.
The decision was prompted by the Bologna prosecutor's office investigation of a concorso to assign a post of associate professor of ophthalmology at the University of Bologna Medical School. According to the prosecutors, when the examining panel was about to choose from several candidates for the job it received intimidating messages and threats. One professor allegedly demanded from a member of the panel that the job be assigned to his wife. The academic refused and reported the matter.
The Bologna case is the latest in a long series of scandals, particularly in Italy's medical schools. In most cases the law courts fail to produce a clear and effective verdict and, thanks to a closing of ranks in the academic world and to statutes of limitations, the guilty are rarely sentenced and those who are appointed irregularly succeed in holding on to the posts.
A succession of reforms of the concorso system, all avowedly aimed at stamping out nepotism and rewarding merit, has failed to make significant improvements.
"There is a lot of talk and a lot of declarations of good intentions," a gastroenterologist at Rome's La Sapienza University Medical School said, "but today, if anything, the situation is worse than it was 25 years ago when I started out. There are heads of department who have been found guilty of corruption in the past who are still at their posts at the age of 79 and still run their department like feudal princes."
In a bid to stamp out nepotism, Mr Mussi has announced another reform of the system. But few people who work in Italy's universities hold much hope that it will make any difference, convinced that the network of baronial power in the university system will prove more resilient than any national legislation.
"In the medical faculties there is a war for teaching posts because they provide prestige (and extra earnings) for a doctor's private practice,"
said economist Giacomo Vaciago. "Academics usually win a post as researcher, then associate professor, then professor, in the university in which they were students. This is the opposite of internationalisation, for which there is such a need."