The rector of an Italian university has described how his institution is tapping into its alumni links to fight “misunderstandings” about the European Union and to bring academic rigour to the country’s political debate.
Rome’s LUISS Guido Carli University – the acronym stands for Free International University for Social Studies – is a private college with a long history of producing diplomats and politicians. Italy’s current prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, was a professor of private law at LUISS.
Andrea Prencipe, LUISS’ rector, said he used these ties and the concept of an “engaged university” to help the institution “inform policymaking, define better practices and eventually inspire a better society”.
The rise of populism and the threat to evidence-based policymaking seems especially concerning in Italy, which is led by a coalition government of the Five Star Movement – which has been criticised for its anti-science views – and the right-wing and anti-immigration party the League.
Professor Prencipe said these trends needed to be carefully scrutinised. “Nowadays problems are too complicated, they actually need the involvement of more experts…we are putting forward this idea very strongly,” he said.
Last year, the university organised a debate on the future of Europe that included the Italian minister of foreign affairs, Enzo Moavero Milanesi, another professor “on loan” from LUISS. “We offered them an interesting and original view on what’s happening in Europe,” Professor Prencipe said. “The situation is not just uncertain but very ambiguous: you’ve got Brexit, you’ve got the positive feedback for populist parties in many countries, and discussions about whether Italy should leave Europe too.”
These kinds of events “expose [policymakers] to the kinds of knowledge we produce in LUISS”, the rector explained. They also helped to ensure that academics did not live “in a bubble, trapped in using certain jargon or in certain debates”.
Professor Prencipe’s response to the problems facing the European Union was to recruit more scholars to study it. “Unless we study it, we won’t be able to shape the future of Europe,” he said.
“Its importance goes well beyond economics and financial issues. The EU offers a model for avoiding war, keeping the welfare state, creating a market and building a new form of polity that is both a union of nations but also a supranational polity.”
“Too much debate about the EU is based on very little understanding of how and why it has developed…the EU’s future should be shaped by a realistic debate,” the rector continued. The public and policymakers should make up their minds about whether to support the EU in its current form, “but we should provide analysis and evidence for an intelligent debate”.
When it comes to populism, social scientists have to ensure that it is “not just another vague term” and that “scholars understand the conditions that make it thrive”, Professor Prencipe said.
“Populism can’t be avoided, but we can make sure that the concept has some rigour,” he added.
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