Rector takes on Messina unguarded

August 21, 1998

Gaetano Silvestri, the new rettore magnifico of the University of Messina, has refused a personal bodyguard or bullet-proof car.

"For the time being, I do not feel it is necessary. And I sincerely hope that I will never feel the need for these precautions."

At the end of last month, Professor Silvestri was elected to the top post at the Sicilian university. The university has been racked by corruption scandals, suspicion of Mafia infiltration and the murder of a prominent professor, possibly masterminded by a colleague suspected of Mafia connections.

The previous rector, Diego Cuzzocrea, resigned in June, accused of involvement in the murder plot and a key target of official corruption investigations looking at outside contracts assigned to a firm controlled by his brothers.

Professor Silvestri has vowed to be the new broom that sweeps clean. Messina is known as the university at which students in an oral examination have been known to place a pistol on the table to obtain a good grade. Lecturers have repeatedly reported being threatened by students at exam time. It is also suspected that grossly overpriced contracts for supplies and equipment have gone to "friends" of academic barons linked to the 'Ndrangheta, the Calabrian Mafia.

Nonetheless, Professor Silvestri, a constitutional lawyer, seems undaunted by the task of radically reforming a university tainted by years of corruption and fear.

"I want to restore the rules, to make the university follow clearly established rules, to function through relationships that are not based on favouritism or personal friendships: in other words, official procedure rather than clan power. We must streamline procedures and apply the laws on transparent administration, which concern the assignment of outside contracts and which have been ignored.

"The rector can no longer be an omnipotent figure, dispensing favours or hurling bolts of lightning at his whim. My goal is simply to achieve a measure of normality in keeping with prevalent European standards," Professor Silvestri said.

He believes the university must be a central force transmitting the principles of legality, honesty and transparency to the rest of the city.

Professor Silvestri is optimistic, citing his election as proof that change is possible. He is considered a man of the political left, and certainly not a member of the powerful clans that supported the elections of his predecessors.

"Many academics who previously did not take part in the politics of the university, but let the established power cliques maintain their power, have been suddenly involved in making choices in accordance with their consciences. My election came after scores of open, democratic debates on the future of the university involving hundreds of academics. This is an unprecedented step forward. Previous elections had taken place in closed rooms, where alliances between the heads of clans were negotiated and forged."

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