Magnificent rector backs out of break-up

February 20, 1998

Giuseppe D'Ascenzo was elected Rettore Magnifico of Rome's La Sapienza University last autumn after a long succession of inconclusive and hotly contested ballots.

After alliances had been made and broken among the voting academics he vanquished Giorgio Tecce who had ruled the mega-university autocratically for ten years.

As he was being congratulated by friends and colleagues Professor D'Ascenzo's first words were: "I feel a great fear."

And well he might. With more than 180,000 students, La Sapienza is the world's second-most crowded university after Mexico City. Professor D'Ascenzo said: "It is not only enormous but also an administrative and economic shambles. Only a fool would not have had a feeling of fear in taking over a structure of this kind."

La Sapienza has also been the setting for a number of scandals, both economic and academic, over the past few years. For example, in May 1997 a student was shot dead while she was walking across the campus. As Italy's largest university, located in the national capital, it is also the stage for much rivalry between politico-academic clans. It embodies some of the best and much of the worst in Italian higher education.

Professor D'Ascenzo, an analytic chemist, implicitly blames his predecessor for La Sapienza's sorry state. Professor Tecce clashed with university minister Luigi Berlinguer over calls from the ministry to reorganise La Sapienza into a number of smaller units, in keeping with a 1996 law that sets at 40,000 the maximum number of students for any university, and gave five years for restructuring to be effected.

Other mega-universities in Bologna, Naples and Milan have already begun a process of de-centralisation, but, under Professor Tecce, La Sapienza paid only grudging lip service to the principle.

Before he was elected, Professor D'Ascenzo seemed in favour of a radical reorganisation of La Sapienza, but one of his first statements after his election was that "dismembering is out of the question. We are thinking in terms of reorganisation".

He also pointed out that "as long as the law allows students to enrol in any faculty of any university, it is obvious that they will tend to choose the universities with the greatest prestige and that it is impossible for a university to draw the line at 40,000".

Professor D'Ascenzo explained that he is putting the finishing touches to "a new government of La Sapienza, a kind of cabinet of about 20 members, each with a specific job - relations with students, international relations, economy, teaching, social structures, sport, and so on". But he emphasised that there is no intention of breaking up the university.

Professor D'Ascenzo is instead looking at ways to extend its influence and reorganise, more efficiently, the existing faculties and departments.

"We are trying to create a regional university network for the Lazio region", he explained. "This would include La Sapienza, Torvergata, Rome Three, Viterbo, Cassino, and several private universities. We could work together on research projects, and eventually set up a joint programme for distributing students. I would like to see on the one hand a higher education network in the Lazio region and also a metropolitan network for the city of Rome.

"We want to create duplicate faculties where there is particular overcrowding. La Sapienza, for instance, has about 50,000 law students. So we could create a second law faculty, possibly in a part of the city which would make it easier for students to get there. We want to analyse the daily movements of the students and create new academic centres so as to make life easier for them and reduce traffic in the city."

During Professor Tecce's reign there had been talk of reorganising La Sapienza along the lines of London University, with a number of independent colleges.

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