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Italian jobs in high places

By Domenico Pacitti

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 publishers.

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 frequent.

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 passport withdrawn."

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 languages.

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 himse
lf 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 rot."

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 spirit."

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 them."

Note: This article first appeared i
n The Guardian on February 11 1997.