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Ten questions on Italian universities answered

Domenico Pacitti replies to Jonathan Collins in Washington DC

Dear Domenico,

For the past few months I have been reading your articles and letters relating to the situation in Italian universities. I am a US citizen who has been living and working in Italy for the past couple of years and have had the opportunity of observing my Italian friends through their trials and tribulations at university. I originally came to Italy as a high school exchange student and returned two years ago to work abroad for a few years after finishing my Bachelor's degree in a Canadian university.

My circle of friends widely recognizes the presence of corruption within Italian university ranks and I know at least one person who has benefited from the system of "raccomandazioni" in obtaining a teaching position ... [Read full letter]

–– Jonathan Collins, Washington DC, USA

 Dear Jonathan,

In your letter you ask some pertinent questions about the negative state of Italian universities in addition to recounting some of your personal impressions and experiences from an American visitor's viewpoint. To facilitate reading, your questions appear together with my answers below in interview form, while your full letter has been published separately.

Jonathan Collins: To what extent do you think there has been a conscious desire on the part of students to join in on the clan mentality as it's the "only way to get in", thereby perpetuating the system and actually affirming its most negative characteristics?

Domenico Pacitti: Your question reflects a view of the typical Italian 1st-year student as being on a moral and ethical par with his or her US counterpart. Well that's just completely misleading. Since I began teaching at Pisa in 1985 I have seen the usual examples of student protest action – occupying the faculty, boycotting lectures, demonstrating in the streets. High fees, poor study facilities, insufficient teaching staff are the typical complaints. It never occurs to them to protest against the corrupt staff recruitment system which is based only nominally on merit and publications but substantively on favours accorded to relatives, lovers, friends of friends and so on. In this sense even the most radical student groups are far from being as radical as they think, or anywhere near radical enough to have any chance of bringing about the important changes. Why? Because their school training and indoctrination from an early age – which also includes learning how to cheat at exams from the primary school stage – predisposes them to accept their professori's unethical conduct, cheating and corruption as part of everyday normality.

So it's not a conscious desire or decision by students to join the clan mentality but rather a natural projection of their school and family conditioning up to that stage. The few students to whom it does ever occur to consider such behaviour corrupt and unacceptable at once reject the idea of any action aimed at rectifying this on the grounds that you can't beat the system and that the professori are in any case too powerful and will not hesitate to make students pay for their boldness by failing them at exams.

JC: Is this system of "raccomandazioni" also symptomatic of a certain amount of arbitrariness within the university examination system itself?

DP: Let's just remind readers that the Italian term "raccomandazione" means recommending someone for preferential treatment on the basis of criteria other than merit. It can be traced back to the Ancient Roman form of power and protection known as clientelism. It therefore antedates even the oldest Italian university, Bologna, which was founded in 1088. In all areas of Italian life, not just in universities, people who reach a certain level of responsibility notoriously become intoxicated with what they see as their newly found power. They can abuse this power as a sort of muscle-flexing exercise in order to feel or appear important. Or they can abuse it in order to gain rewards, financial or otherwise, from friends and colleagues.

Within the Italian university context, the power and importance of a professore can be gauged by the number of unreasonable acts he can perform with impunity. A professore will whimsically exhibit his power by giving undeserved top marks to an attractive female student or to a blockhead he happens to feel sorry for. Or he will premeditatively award excessive marks to his own protégé or to another student as a favour to someone else. Similarly he will punish a bright student with low marks simply because he happens not to like his face or because he is feeling tired or irritable. In the absence of these conditions, he may just assess a student on what he takes to be merit, which may also turn out to be a distortion, albeit an unintentional one in this case, of the true assessment.

JC: Is there really more corruption in Italy, or is there simply more openness in talking about it?

DP: It depends what country you are using as a comparison. It also depends how you define corruption. Experts like to cite Transparency International, which tries to get round the "lack of an internationally agreed definition" problem by talking in terms of corruption perception. Their corruption perceptions index for 2003 ranks 133 countries in order of merit. The top places go to Finland, Iceland, Denmark and New Zealand, while Paraguay, Haiti, Nigeria and Bangladesh come out worst. The USA is ranked joint 14th with Ireland, below the UK, Austria, Germany and Belgium. Italy is ranked joint 35th with Kuwait, in the wake of countries like Cyprus, Slovenia, Taiwan and Uruguay.

Although I have strong reservations about Transparency International's procedure in quantifying over corruption perception, their findings may give you some sort of idea of the situation. My own view is that corruption in Italy is actually far worse than is generally perceived since it is simply not regarded as such by Italians, who, when pressed, dismiss it as not really corruption at all. That would also explain your suggestion that there might be more openness in talking about corruption in Italy than in some other countries.

JC: Do you see general public acceptance as the primary obstacle to real change in Italy when it comes to the culture of "raccomandazioni"?

DP: Yes. Any real change in Italy in the culture of "raccomandazioni", or in any other deeply rooted negative habits for that matter, would require a sharp reversal of public acceptance and therefore a radical change in the national mentality. This then raises the question: how do you change the mentality of an entire nation? The first problem is the lack of any genuine collective feeling of national unity in Italy. Italians are united by overconcern with food, dolce vita, appearances and susceptibility to corruption more than by almost anything else and until relatively recently the national language itself wasn't even a uniting force. There are historical and cultural reasons for this. You would somehow have to find a way of motivating Italians collectively into doing things differently, of convincing them that it would be in their interests.

One obvious way, which has worked in other countries, is to introduce laws designed to encourage certain forms of behaviour and discourage others. But Italy's history of having undergone successive invasions over the centuries has rendered Italians pretty well immune to the imposition of laws and expert in evading them. When people do get caught for breaking the law, the Roman Catholic mentality of forgiveness comes to the rescue, if not to exculpate, at least to attenuate, which means there are no sufficient deterrents to lawbreaking. It also means that the Vatican continues to retard progress on such issues by continuing to promote a doctrinal system which breeds and even encourages and condones corruption.

JC: Is there anything one person can actually do when confronted with this sink or swim environment?

DP: In other words, is it worth fighting a losing battle? The answer is that it depends on your values. Elsewhere I have argued, convincingly I hope, that despite much lip service the Roman Catholic Church positively discourages the serious pursuit of truth and justice in practice. The vast majority of Italians are overprone to convenient compromise. They also suffer from weakness of the will, passivity, egoism, envy and greed. All of this clearly channels them in the direction of crude pragmatism. On the other hand, there are some people – and you won't find many of them in Italy – who are, as it were, allergic to corruption, injustices, falsehood and hypocrisy. They have no choice other than to fight the battle in the hope that they can at least contribute their small part towards changing the system. Nor are they discouraged by the prospect of failure since their inaction would be incompatible with their moral principles, dignity and self-respect.

JC: What is your opinion on the way the élite upper class defends the Italian university system without questioning it?

DP: Given their self-interests and negative moral make-up, it follows logically that they must defend the Italian status quo. Curiously, if you talk to some of these people individually and press them hard enough with irrefutable evidence, they will sometimes privately acknowledge the sad truth. Italian education mininstry staff and top cross-party poliiticians, including two former ministers for universities, have admitted to me privately that their university system is nothing short of a disaster and a national disgrace, at times citing even more dramatic examples than those cited by myself. But they will always deny this publicly.

Some years ago Antonio Villani, the then rector of the prestigious Suor Orsola Benincasa university in Naples, was shown to have had five books translated from the German, published in his own name and presented for career advancement purposes. It was also reported that Norberto Bobbio, the illustrious Italian philosopher who died earlier this year, had served on two adjudicating commissions at which Mr Villani's books had been presented, if I remember correctly, and had failed to notice anything strange. The most likely explanation is that as the winner had, as usual, been chosen well in advance, no one had even bothered to open the books let alone read them. Whichever way you look at it, it hardly reflects well on either Villani or Bobbio. Typically, it was all glossed over in the end and Villani's supporters even dedicated a Festschrift to him. That's the confession/forgiveness mechanism in action again. You can find more examples of Italian academic publication standards in my reviews for the Just Book Reviews journal at Failing faculties [and on this website at Reviews].

Or to take another example, Rita Levi Montalcini, the 1986 Nobel laureate in medicine, a senator of the Italian republic and a grand old lady, recently signed a hypocritical letter of appeal for criteria of merit to be "restored" in open public exams for the recruitment of Italian professori. What was hypocritical and incalculably damaging to Italian academic credibility, or whatever survives of it abroad, was that the letter, which was also signed by eleven illustrious Italian professori, presented a picture of these recruitment procedures as having been correct until a 1998 ministerial reform changed this. If this is the way the illustrious Italian academic models are behaving, you can imagine how much worse it gets as you move down the hierarchy. The truth is that the reform simply shifted the baronial mafia from the national to the local level. That the other eleven apostles signed such a letter does not surprise me. But Ms Montalcini should have known better, having carried out all the crucial phases of her research in the USA and spent many years there.

It is about as hard to get an Italian academic or politician to state uncomfortable truths as it is to drag a recalcitrant goat backwards through a hedge. No Italian speaks the truth without first considering its political implications.

JC: How would you respond to individuals in the Italian upper class whose own family members are professors at universities and are trying to get other family members positions within the system, yet tend to view your knowledge and education as practically worthless?

DP: It's not exactly that they view your knowledge as worthless. It's that they avoid entering into a detailed discussion and evaluation for fear of where it might lead. This attitude is also borne out in the absurdly unfair manner in which Italian universities formally evaluate foreign degree qualifications. I have come across various cases of Anglo-American PhDs being accorded little or no value within the Italian system of certificate validation. I remember one case of a British colleague asking for credit towards obtaining an Italian degree by presenting her Oxford degree and a PhD from a top US university. They offered to place her in the second year of an equivalent Italian degree course. Soon afterwards she re-submitted her application to the same university without her US PhD, and was placed in the third year. I haven't been keeping up with developments but I understand that the situation has since improved, at least for EU members. But the ridiculous brazen mentality is still there. Non-recognition of foreign academic worth can perhaps be best explained as the result of a dire need to keep their fragile closed system sealed fortress-like against foreign invasion.

JC: What is your take on the Italian élite's view of its educational background as superior while at the same time it perpetuates a system that is seemingly not based on merit?

DP: Italians are impressed above all by the expression of vague concepts couched in verbose rhetoric. This coupled with the ability to reel off impressive-sounding names, quotes and dates is what they consider to be "cultura" and what universities should be all about. This is by no means, of course, limited to Italy, but it works very well in a country of people who have been trained through the centuries to observe rigorous limits to public discourse. Again, the Church is mainly reponsible. Any attempt to shift the balance from form to content by developing your own thought and trying to express it as clearly and simply as possible is frowned upon.

Meanwhile an Italian professore will convince himself that his verbose nonsense is actually acute and substantive, or that his eloquent second-hand thoughts are actually his own. This may seem strange unless you also understand that Italians inhabit a twilight zone between truth and falsehood, fact and fiction, consciousness and unconsciousness. Stark truths are too hard for Italians to bear, like the midday Mediterranean sun at the height of summer. The members of this so-called élite, even more than other Italians, thrive on thin appearances, misleading impressions and the ritual respect they enjoy from students and those they take to be their social inferiors. And within this elaborately constructed circus they succeed in concealing the true reality also from themselves.

JC: What is your opinion as concerns instruction in the sciences and particularly medical school where students don't even cut into a cadaver until far into their medical school career?

DP: Incompetence resulting from corruption is rife throughout Italian academia but it is more difficult to hide in the case of the sciences or mathematics where there is often more obviously something to be objectively right or wrong about. This makes it more difficult to find professori lecturing absolute nonsense in the practical sciences than in the humanities. Italian professori are at their best and least dangerous when they are reading to their students from course textbooks. On medical courses these tend to be authorised translations of reliable foreign (usually English) textbooks where they have not been plagiarised by the medical professore himself.

Some of the results of inadequate medical instruction at universities may be detected in the surgical blunders which appear regularly in the press. That is why Italians prefer to go abroad for important medical treatment when they can afford to. It is also true, however, that there are many competent doctors and surgeons in Italy. Like Italians in other professional fields they accumulate much of their skill despite their university education, not because of it, and usually after it.

JC: Is practical application of theory barely even touched on, or is this an exaggeration on my part?

DP: At Italian universities the practical work tends to be delegated, or better relegated, to mere technicians as unworthy of the attention of the professori. For example, students choose to study at foreign-language faculties chiefly, and fairly reasonably one would have thought, in order to learn to speak, read, write and understand two or more foreign languages. They are usually unpleasantly surprised to discover that none of the senior teaching staff ever deigns to give them any of this much desired and much needed practical instruction. Officially, the senior staff feel that such instruction is beneath them and that half-baked literary or linguistic theory is what is important. The real reason turns out to be that they are not capable of teaching a foreign language themselves, having never actually had to learn one properly in the first place, either to obtain a degree or to gain a tenured teaching post and successive promotions.

This disdain for practical work runs all the way through Italian academia. It is also, of course, found in foreign universities too, but not at the levels of grotesque, baroque perversion in the name of erudition which you find in an Italian university. There is a good quote by William Gerhardi which comes to mind: "There are as many fools at a university as elsewhere. But their folly has a certain stamp –- the stamp of university training." You can also read that as tailor-made for Italy.

–– Domenico Pacitti, December 16 2004

Note: This article was published for the first time by JUST Response on December 16 2004.