Reactionary lecturers ‘emboldened’ by incoming Italian government

But political scientists and politician-scientist say the country’s rightward shift poses ‘no risk’ to academic freedom or international recruitment

October 4, 2022
Facade of the Montecitorio Palace in Rome, seat of the Italian Chamber of Deputies
Source: iStock

Italian academics have said the country’s rightward political shift could empower sexist or fascist lecturers, but that the new government will not pick a fight with universities. 

With 26 per cent of the vote in last month’s election, Giorgia Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy (FdI) are set to lead a centre-right coalition, making her the front-runner to be appointed Italy’s next prime minister after parliament returns on 13 October. 

Her leadership would represent a rightward shift in Italian politics following the national unity government of Mario Draghi, which collapsed in July after right-wing and anti-establishment parties pulled out. 

Outside Italy, much attention has focused on FdI’s neo-fascist progenitors, and Giliberto Capano, a professor of political science and public policy at the University of Bologna, told Times Higher Education that the ideology of the new government could embolden far-right speech on campuses. 

He cited examples like Emanuele Castrucci, a professor at the University of Siena who was pushed to retire after tweeting that Adolf Hitler “fought against the real monsters”, or Marco Bassani, a professor at the State University of Milan, who was suspended without salary for a month after making a sexist claim about US vice-president Kamala Harris. 

“I could expect that some of these colleagues will feel legitimated to say what they think,” said Professor Capano, who said a national debate on abortion could also lead to protest on campuses. 

But while a shift from the centre to the centre-right alters the political atmosphere universities operate in, none of the Italian academics THE spoke to saw any inherent risk to universities from the new government. 

Picking an anti-intellectual battle would invite the fascist associations the FdI has strenuously avoided, said Professor Capano, adding that the young government will have plenty to worry about holding itself together and dealing with unemployment, the war in Ukraine and a winter energy crisis. 

“Academic freedom is very high,” said Gianfranco Pasquino, professor emeritus of political science at Bologna. “Usually, the minister of education or the minister of universities does not interfere in academic affairs, and it would be very difficult for him or her to do so.” 

Professor Pasquino, who said he was a left-leaning voter, said it would be “totally wrong” to describe the government as “post-fascist” and that the Italian right was “largely misunderstood” outside the country. 

He rejected comparisons to national-conservative parties in Hungary or Poland, which have been widely criticised for undermining university autonomy or targeting teaching and research seen to conflict with their ideology or agenda. 

“This is not a Latin American country in which a dictator has taken power. This is an elected coalition with a sizeable majority in parliament, fundamentally with no inclination to reduce the liberty of the citizens,” Professor Pasquino said. 

Andrea Crisanti, a professor at Imperial College London and a freshly elected senator for the centre-left Democratic Party representing expatriate Italians, agreed the new government posed “no risk” to academic freedom or international recruitment.  

Professor Capano previously told THE that Italy’s €20 billion (£17.4 billion) cash injection for education from the European Union’s Covid-19 recovery fund meant many academics had been relaxed about the election outcome.

The new Italian government is likely to be formed towards the end of the month.

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