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Dead souls

By Domenico Pacitti

Italian academia's notoriously dominant culture of Mafia-style corruption was last week behind the two latest scandals to haveemerged in a depressingly interminable flow. An alarm signal in most countries, they were tellingly shrugged off in Italy aslittle more than run-of-the-mill.

In a grotesque swindle evoking Gogol's classic Dead Souls but beyond the Russian novelist's wildest dreams in scale and audacity, 454 doctors and specialists operating in the Venice area were charged with systematically defrauding the health board out of billions of lire by trafficking in dead patients in order to claim reimbursement for bogus tests and prescriptions.

With new leads suggesting that the practice may well have spread nationally, the health minister's call for severe action has met with feeble excuses blaming bureaucracy and union pleas for a forgive-and-forget solution in exchange for mass confessions. Yet the cast-iron university teaching posts held by many of the accused remain unthreatened.

Meanwhile, four distinguished medical professors at the University of Milan were among those arrested in connection with another  health board swindle at the city's exclusive San Raffaele private hospital where they were employed as consultants. The hospital is part of a foundation established with Vatican support by a Roman Catholic priest, Don Luigi Verzé, and includes the élite San Raffaele Life-Health University of which he is also the rector.

The professors are alleged to have devised an intricate system  whereby patients were ruthlessly exploited, at times to the  detriment of their own health, as pawns in an elaborate game of grossly inflating reimbursable expenses and inventing others. Again, the professors' university posts will remain secure whatever the final outcome.

Last year the rector of the University of Messina, Diego Cuzzocrea, whose 26 family companies had gained a firm monopoly of the university's £80 million-a-year contract work, and who had openly been running the university as a family business, was actually voted back into a second term of office on a two-thirds majority. He later resigned when accused of Mafia involvement, complicity in the murder of another professor at the same university and simulated theft of his own car in order to mislead murder investigations.

Previously, the rector of Naples's celebrated Suor Orsola Benincasa University and president of the Italian Society of Legal and Political Philosophy, Antonio Villani, was forced to resign when it was discovered that his five major works were carbon copies of German texts plagiarised straight into Italian. Indicatively, the popular reaction was neither indignation nor embarrassment but surprise and amusement that a man in his position of power had allowed himself to be caught.

Other recent cases include: the long-standing sexual harassment of female students by their professors at the University of Bari; a professor of French literature at Naples's Oriental University who is still lecturing despite having been given a 14-month suspended sentence for illegally photocopying books and forcing students to  buy them at exorbitant prices; two medical professors at the Universities of Genoa and Turin, arrested for having demanded £80,000 from a student seeking a place on a degree course and then rejecting him despite an advance payment of £40,000; a group of professors of politics, economics, statistics, Romance philology, law and medicine at the University of Messina accused of privileging a number of university job applications and of selling exam passes and degree certificates to students; a professor of architecture at the University of Florence who calculated students' marks in proportion to the value of personally commissioned porcelain and silverware gifts; and last but not least, a professor of economics at the University of Bologna and government adviser whose published work elicited  a welter of plagiarism charges.

Sadly, such cases are simply the tip of a very large iceberg. Fear of reprisals and sheer indifference prevent a myriad of others from ever surfacing, although insiders see clearly what goes on. Outdated libel and slander laws which hinge more upon the mediaeval notion of offence to a person's honour than upon objective truth or falsehood, act as further deterrents against speaking out. The result is a miracle of tacit complicity in organised corruption by the nation's university teaching force of just under 60,000 which would do credit to a totalitarian thought regime.

The cynical disregard of academic merit and adverse sensitivity to moral integrity employed in the vetting of prospective candidates for tenured posts ensures the system's unimpeded perpetration. Susceptibility to corruption, weakness of character and servility are, on the other hand, the chief qualities required. serious contestations, which are rare, have resulted in the colourful spectacle of entire commissions and even faculties placed under arrest and led away in handcuffs following recordings of their deliberations.

Since the higher education ministry was instituted in 1989, Italy has had eight ministers, all professors, none of whom has even attempted to tackle the situation seriously and some of whom have declared  their impotence to do so. Adding more laws to the 200,000 already in existence has already proved futile and even counter-productive: in Italy breaking the law is literally a way of life and asking for it to be upheld is considered offensive. European derecognition of Italian universities as bona fide institutions would be the logical step to take.

Concluding his thoughts on the feasibility of an international union of states, Bertrand Russell once said that if culture were not to suffer, some way would have to be found of combining cultural independence with political unity. Unfortunately he did not say how this was to be achieved in cases where the culture in question is one in which Mafia-style corruption is not only rampant but also inextricably bound up with a country's social culture and major institutions.

Note: This article first appeared in Parliament Magazine (Brussels) on March 22 1999.