Spain urged to root out abuse and favouritism in academe

July 29, 2005

An academic has called for an overhaul of the Spanish university system because its "obsolete structure" has fostered "a culture of harassment, inbreeding and corruption".

Rosa Peñasco, professor of civil law at the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia, who has herself suffered harassment and is pursuing legal action in connection with it, has published a book that seeks to reveal the truth about bullying and nepotism in Spanish universities.

Research carried out at five universities (Galicia, the Basque Country, Granada, Alcalá de Henares and Murcia) suggests that about 44 per cent of Spanish lecturers have experienced persistent psychological abuse.

"I have drawn on research studies undertaken in various universities and, added to my experience, I believe the figures are accurate," she said. "The problem is that all Spanish universities have the same rigid hierarchical structure coupled with a lack of accountability."

Professor Peñasco argues that the authorities do not even begin to acknowledge the extent of the problem. For example, only three out of 50 universities are believed to have anti-harassment policies in place.

The lack of willingness to recognise the problem is linked to the system of enchufes (connections who will pull strings) or amiguismo (old-boy network) that results in relatives or friends being appointed to positions ahead of more talented professionals.

"You would be amazed at how many departments and university hierarchies are filled with relatives from the same family," Professor Peñasco said. "These clans are supported by 'silent witnesses' who, out of fear or personal interest, support the abuse by not speaking out."

One of the reasons this culture has grown is because department heads have had almost total power to grant or withhold permanent contracts. The result is a culture of mediocrity and stagnation. "Creative, free-thinking or outstanding academics are seen as a threat to the existing order," she said.

Professor Peñasco fell victim to harassment herself after publishing a book linking the lyrics of traditional Spanish songs to the teaching of family law.

Her book, La Copla Sabe de Leyes , drew widespread national and international interest. But its success generated problems in her department. The subsequent harassment resulted in Professor Pe$asco's taking two years' sick leave. The case, which is going to court, is believed to be the first of its type to reach this stage in the legal process in Spain.

But Professor Pe$asco believes there is hope for change. "The Organic University Law that recently came into force may lead to a more transparent system of awarding permanent contracts.

"Those who really love what is best in the university - open academic debate, progress based on merit and freedom of thought - are also beginning to stand up and fight for it."

Mobbing en la Universidad by Rosa Peñasco is published by Adhara,

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