Nepotism flourishes despite law

March 1, 2002

THES reporters examine appointment systems worldwide:

Italy's academic recruitment system has been the object of controversy for decades. A job in the state university system is a job for life with excellent conditions - no risk of dismissal and guaranteed pay rises and pension benefits.

In 1998, after years of debate and many compromises, Italy adopted a system that was meant to end the nepotism that had long plagued appointments. Sadly, the complex and cumbersome system seems to satisfy almost no one.

Until recently, the central ministry periodically held competitive exams called concorsi to fill vacancies. The senior academics comprising the examining panel were known as baroni . Members were sometimes elected by peers in a field and other times selected at random. Successful candidates were distributed to fill vacant posts across the country. Institutions had no say in the choice.

Baroni on the commission tended to favour their own or their colleagues'

proteges. This often led to jobs going to people connected to the baroni regardless of qualifications.

In the late 1980s, as universities gained more autonomy over their budgets and academic programmes, they began to seek more say in choosing their lecturers. It was also hoped that this would vanquish nepotism, since rectors and faculty chiefs would demand the best candidate.

The new system is best illustrated with an fictional example. A physics department in need of a professor of nuclear physics announces the vacancy and relevant concorso , and details the necessary qualifications. A commission is formed with one physicist designated by the university, who may or may not work there, and four physicists from other universities, elected by physicists nationwide. After examining the candidates, the commission declares two to be "qualified" for the job. The university can choose one or the other, or it can reject both and start again. Invariably, one "winner" gets the job. The other stays on a national list of "qualified" academics for three years.

The idea is that when another university needs a nuclear physicist, it can select from the list. In practice, patronage and nepotism flourish. A candidate in a concorso who wanted to remain anonymous explained: "I am an associate professor in Rome, which is where I want to live. I'm competing in a concorso at a small provincial university, but everybody knows that the local candidate is going to get that job.

"I have no wish to teach there. My purpose is to get on the 'qualified'

list so that when my friends and connections find an opening for me in Rome, they can call me directly without going through another concorso . I know that at least one of the commissioners, maybe two, will back me.

"What has changed under the new system is that where before there was a national mafia, now there is a locally based mafia with national connections."

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