Usurped rector loses ungracefully

October 31, 1997

The battle to head Rome's La Sapienza University, Europe's largest university, has ended with the defeat of Giorgio Tecce, 73, the autocratic and controversial rector who has ruled Europe's most crowded college for the past nine years.

He has been defeated in elections for the job of Rettore Magnifico by Giuseppe D'Ascenzo, 60, head of the faculty of science. Professor D'Ascenzo, who was immediately dubbed "The Magnificent Peppe" by friends and foes, inherits a university with over 180,000 students, marred by overcrowding, ingrained inefficiency and a history of major and minor scandals.

The elections bristled with intrigue, tenuous alliances and political implications, real or imagined. In the final run-off last week, following three inconclusive votes at one-week intervals, Professor D'Ascenzo narrowly beat Gianni Orlandi, head of the Faculty of Engineering.

Professor Tecce was eliminated in the last of the inconclusive ballots. Declining the role of good loser, he immediately accused university minister Luigi Berlinguer of having masterminded a Machiavellian academic-political plot to oust him and replace him with a man of his own. His charges prompted brief murmurings in parliament.

Ironically both Professor Tecce and Mr Berlinguer have their political roots in the old Italian Communist Party. But according to Professor Tecce, the party's current version, the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS) "has two souls - one that sees the solution of problems in terms of consensus, of democratic development and another in terms of sharing and controlling the spoils of political power".

Professor Tecce warned that under the new rector he would lead an "opposition pressure group" within the academic senate.

His fall after three terms as rector marks the end of an era for La Sapienza. He was accused by his critics of running the mega-university on feudal lines, of concentrating all decisions on himself and of surrounding himself with slavish yes-men. Professor Tecce was, however, a master in forming alliances between the many rival cliques within the university. In particular with the large and powerful medical school. His ability is demonstrated by the fact that he was elected three times.

On his last day in office, Professor Tecce ordered the seizure of 2,000 degree theses from the law faculty. These are to be checked, the suspicion being that since some law professors oversee as many as 200 theses a year, there is a risk that they are not read properly and that there may be an illegal market in pre-fabricated works with the same thesis possibly used a number of times by different students. The faculty has about 40,000 students and there have already been allegations of irregularities in exams. It is not clear why Professor Tecce made this last-minute move.

The battle for the rectorship was fought against a backdrop of bitter hostilities and intermittent skirmishes between Professor Tecce and Mr Berlinguer. The university minister has repeatedly demanded that La Sapienza be split up into several smaller and more manageable universities, a demand supported by an existing law that limits a single campus to not more than 50,000 students. But over many months Professor Tecce first rejected Mr Berlinguer's demands and then paid vague, grudging lip-service to them without in practice taking any steps to reorganise La Sapienza. Among the original seven candidates, who became, in successive rounds, five, then three, then two, the key issue was inevitably the ways and means of reforming the overall structure of the university.

After his election, Professor D'Ascenzo said: "I don't want to hear any talk of dismembering La Sapienza. Decentralising, yes, but not dismembering. La Sapienza is a cultural institution which is the envy of the entire world and should not be dismembered." He said he was thinking in terms of a reform along the lines of the University of California and wants to reform La Sapienza to make it "a university for the students, and to ensure that students, lecturers and researchers all work together for the common good of the university". He admitted, however, to being "full of fear" of the difficult job he now faces.

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