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Doctored truths from Italian academic Disneyland

Domenico Pacitti replies to David Aliaga in Calgary, Canada

Dear Domenico,

I happened to come across a very important document at the website of the Italian higher education ministry (MIUR). It is a circular which ministry undersecretary Luciano Guerzoni sent to the president of the Italian rectors’ conference (CRUI) and to all Italian university rectors on November 25 2000. It clearly and officially acknowledges some of the serious problems that have been affecting doctoral university programs throughout Italy.

This circular, I believe, proves beyond any doubt what I have been saying about the quality of my doctoral supervision and program at the University of Calabria. The letter has also reinforced my belief that mine wasn't just an isolated case but the tip of the iceberg of a very serious problem with the training and supervision of doctoral students in Italian universities.

My question is: if the undersecretary and certainly the minister knew about the poor training and formation that doctoral students were receiving in their universities, why is it that they accepted the CUN (national university council) ad-hoc commission’s, by their own admission, incomplete investigation as well as outright lies about my case?

–– David Aliaga, Calgary, Canada

Dear David,

Your own case [Doctoral torture] not only illustrates problems encountered on Italian doctorate courses, but also provides some valuable insights into Italian academic ethical and other malpractices more generally from a doctoral student's perspective. Although I see little hope of satisfaction for you in terms of a final rectification of the injustices you suffered, I think you are right to go on fighting for the principle and hope you will continue to help rattle Italian academics out of their complacency in corruption.


The ministerial letter you refer to complained that universities had not been employing doctoral funding in accordance with directives set out two years previously in 1998 as part of higher education minister Luigi Berlinguer's supposedly radical reforms. They were not genuinely radical in that Berlinguer made no attempt to dismantle the corrupt baronial power system. On the other hand, Berlinguer, as the letter shows, was making a genuine attempt to improve services to students and raise academic levels. The letter instructed rectors to assign fifty per cent of their doctoral funding for 2001 to teaching doctoral students both how to teach and how to do research. It also told rectors to encourage doctoral students to participate in foreign exchange programmes with suitable universities and to arrange for external collaboration with other universities both foreign and Italian.


The letter thus confirms that the higher education ministry was well aware of the seriously substandard quality and quantity of doctoral supervision at Italian universities and that your own case was, as you say, simply the tip of a national iceberg. In case there were any doubts, the string of international academic organisations, including CAUT, AAUP and GSA, and the endless list of foreign academics who supported your case and wrote to the ministry without receiving a reply, also appear to have concluded that CUN failed to conduct a proper investigation.


Before I answer your question let me just spell out a couple of points concerning Italian doctorates. Italian doctoral students might be said to be already by definition accomplices in corruption since the selection procedures, or concorsi, by which postgraduate students are normally admitted to doctoral courses are invariably subject to the customary Italian vices of favouritism. Cases such as your own where special places have been reserved for foreign students provide a rare exception to the rule. Needless to say, the final evaluation and awarding of Italian doctorates are vitiated by the same sort of corruption.


An Italian doctorate qualification – which cannot properly be translated "PhD" for the same sort of reasons that professore can only misleadingly be translated professor – should always be carefully scrutinised by the international academic community, especially for plagiarism and other unethical procedures. I have discovered that some Italian mothers provide their 11-year-old children with folded cribs to keep up their sleeves for primary school tests, which shows just how early on the corruption process begins in Italy.


So why did the higher education undersecretary and the minister accept the CUN commission's inadequate report about your case?


Well let's just look at who exactly the players are. The undersecretary, Luciano Guerzoni, is a professore of ecclesiastical law at the University of Modena, describes himself as a Christian-socialist and likes to write about religious freedom. He holds the further distinction of having once served on a school reforms commission under Stefano Zamagni, a professore of economics at the University of Bologna who was at the centre of a plagiarism scandal in 1996.


The minister, Luigi Berlinguer, now retired, was rector of the University of Siena and a professore of "exegesis of the sources of Italian law", a chair that is said to have been tailor-made in advance in order to suit his field of specialisation to the obvious detriment of competing candidates. He was appointed minister in the Olive Tree coalition by Romano Prodi, a former premier and professore of economics at the University of Bologna [see Italy's numismatic Mr Prodi - guru or Godfather?].


CUN is, again, composed of Italian university professori, as was your own doctorate examining commission.


When you understand the corrupt, cosca-clan, caste mentality which characterises Italian academia, it should come as no surprise to discover that truth and transparency fail to prevail over pragmatic interests and group survival. In fact, truth simply has no value in this context. Formalism, appearances, propaganda, unaccountability and the survival of the power system are all that matters. Almost certainly, no one in the ministry, the CUN commission or the doctorate examining commission was ever remotely interested in either the truth of your allegations (they would certainly have come across infinitely worse cases than yours) or the substantive content of your case. Formal procedures were, as always in Italy, simply utilised bureaucratically and cynically in order to justify unjust actions. And there is the answer to your question.


To seek truth and ethics in Italian academia is like looking for a rainbow in a black hole or Bin Laden in Disneyland.

–– Domenico Pacitti, October 9 2004

Note: This article was published for the first time by JUST Response on October 9 2004.