jobs in high places
To the Italian university system, truth, honesty, justice and the spirit
of scientific inquiry seem about as alien as the laws of Galilean
physics are to black hole astronomy. Yet continuing revelations,
often due to students who have not yet succumbed to this
unfortunate creed, are still raising hopes of ending what is being
commonly described as a long-standing "mafia of corruption
and baronial tyranny".
Take the case of the university rector and president of the
Italian Society of Legal and Political Philosophy (Antonio
Villani), who resigned after a university commission found that he
had plagiarised five of his seven major works. They were carbon
copies of the German originals, translated into Italian, and had
evidently escaped the notice of the many distinguished examining
professors who gave repeated, positive assessments of his work.
Or the case of the professor of French literature (Giampiero
Posani), known to his students as "professor of the
porno-erotic" on account of the gratuitous but persistent
bias of his courses. He was given a three-year prison sentence
(later reduced to 14 months through plea-bargaining) for
photocopying 185 pages from two books without permission and then
selling them to students for £50 - ten times the market value.
Such cases are thought to be just the tip of an iceberg of
widespread wholesale copyright theft among Italian academics. They
are now the target of a campaign launched by international
Just last month the dean of a political science faculty (Eugenio
Caratozzolo) was arrested together with colleagues from economics,
statistics, Romance philology and medicine on corruption charges.
It was for his alleged part in an organisation accused of selling
exam passes and degree certificates to students and of privileging
a number of university job applications. The arrests followed
student complaints, shootings, arson attempts and death threats.
But sometimes even payment seems to be no guarantee of success.
Last December Bruno De Michelis, professor of dental science, and
Marcello Celasco, professor of medical science, were arrested on
corruption charges. They were accused of demanding £80,000 from a
medical graduate who wanted a place on a dentistry degree course.
The alleged victim contacted police after rejection of his
application, despite an alleged advance payment of over £40,000.
Similar cases occur with alarming frequency throughout Italy.
Variations include sexual favours in return for exam passes (such
is the level of sexual harassment that in some cases freephone
services have been specially set up for students), compulsory
purchase of the professor's books as a precondition to exam
admission, threatening and harassment of strong candidates for
university posts by professors with a protected favourite,
unacknowledged help in the translation, revision and even
rewriting of publications. Not surprisingly, absenteeism is rife,
academic incompetence the order of the day and student occupations
Irish novelist Paul Hyde, who has lived in Italy for 11 years,
explains: "The Italian university is a totalitarian state
within a state, reactionary, corrupt and irredeemable, a
conspiracy against education. But what else can you expect in a
country where three former prime ministers have recently been
tried for serious crimes such as theft, complicity in murder and
criminal association? One of them has now fled abroad, his
English lecturer Victoria Primhak, who has seven years' teaching
experience in Italy, said: "What most needs emphasising is
the absolute power wielded by these Italian rectors and
professors, and their total cynical disregard of both the law and
those values commonly associated with real universities."
For some 16 years, the foreign language lecturers in Italy's
universities have been the object of alleged racial
discrimination. Although Italian authorities do not recognise them
as such, they have been solely responsible for the entire language
teaching programmes including testing and marking. They were
originally employed on account of the apparent inability of many
Italian professors of language and literature to teach foreign
Although they do up to three times the number of classroom hours
of their Italian counterparts, their hourly rate of pay can be a
staggering 25 times less.
Dogged Scotsman David Petrie, chairman of the Committee for the
Defence of Foreign Lecturers and a thorn in the side of the
Italian university authorities, is leading his 1,500 colleagues in
a determined crusade against these and other malpractices, putting
his faith in truth, justice and European law.
"The situation here in Italy must be seen to be
believed," he said, "although I think a final solution
to our decade-long dispute may now be in sight as the European
commission has just announced new infringement proceedings against
Italy. A successful prosecution would mean the biggest case for
damages in the history of the European Union."
But the short term remains bleak for them as individual rectors
continue to react vindictively: some 250 foreign lecturers have
recently been sacked in Bologna, Naples, Verona and Salerno.
Add to all this the active participation of religious and
quasi-religious organisations, freemasonry, politics and trade
unions and you have a veritable black hole. A fair guide to the
assessment of moral and academic worth in this area would be to
see it as inversely proportional to the position actually held on
the hierarchical ladder.
Extreme caution is advised when dealing with many of those who
form part of and have passed through such a system. Last October
President Scalfaro himself recalled his dealings with the
professorial class: "As Education Minister I came up against
their power, their disputes and their plotting, and I came away
with a painful impression. The real problem is to stop the
Final solutions? Gianfranco Miglio, constitutionalist and senator
of the radical Lombard League party, is literally advising serious
students to emigrate: "There is no point in telling them to
stay on and fight the system: Italians lack the revolutionary
One of Italy's most lucid and courageous thinkers, Indro
Montanelli, sees basic mentality as the problem: "Italians
have mafia-style thinking in their blood. We are closer to being a
banana republic than a democracy. Perhaps only the British have
the true cult of democracy. The first step is to have the courage
to bring these problems out into the light of day and face up to
Note: This article first appeared in
Guardian on February 11 1997.