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Why Italy's 50,000 university teachers should be sacked

Domenico Pacitti replies to Katarina Björnstjerna in Göteborg, Sweden

Dear Domenico,

One of our national newspapers has quoted you as a leading authority on Italian corruption. It quotes you as saying that Italy's university professors deserve to be sacked and even imprisoned. Can you say more about this? I have just been accepted for a student exchange programme in Naples and am a bit concerned. Two friends who have just returned from a similar project in Rome told me that although there were some problems with crowded lectures and bad organisation, the actual teaching they received wasn't too bad. Were they just lucky? What advice can you give me?

–– Katarina Björnstjerna, Göteborg, Sweden

Dear Katarina,

The reason why Italy's university teachers deserve to be sacked and prosecuted has nothing to do with their teaching ability or academic competence. While it is true that many of them are conspicuously deficient in both areas, that is not the reason. They deserve to be sacked and prosecuted because they are flagrantly corrupt and are corrupting successive generations of students through their corrupt example. The corruption I am talking about has nothing to do with bribing policemen or judges. It has to do with the conscious promotion of a system which has no place for truth, merit, moral integrity and intellectual honesty – the sort of values that are commonly associated with bona fide universities such as you have in Sweden. Not only does the Italian university system have no place for these values but it actually discourages and even punishes those who attempt to uphold them. In this sense the very soul of Italian academia is corrupt.

The key to understanding how the system operates is to observe how tenured university posts are allocated in Italy. It has long been common knowledge within Italian academia that such posts can only be gained through underhand recommendations based on an ingrained Machiavellian, Mafia-style exchange-of-favour mentality. Only candidates who can be counted on to play the corrupt game and return favours are admitted, which gives you an idea of the sort of person you're dealing with: weak-willed, unprincipled and susceptible to corruption. This means that the teachers who will be teaching you when you come to Italy will have been hand-picked not for their academic merit, moral integrity or intellectual honesty, but for very different reasons. You should remember that those university teachers who do have some academic merit were admitted not because of that merit but in spite of it.

One consequence of this corruption is that generations of deserving candidates, many of whom from poor families that have made enormous sacrifices for their children's education, have been denied their due. The less astute candidates believe the severe judgements pronounced against their academic merit and designed to punish them for having had the audacity to apply for the post and to discourage them from ever re-applying. Another obvious consequence of this corruption is that students enrolling at university are exposed to perverse models in their teachers and are denied a genuine academic atmosphere in which truth and integrity have a value.

The last official count shows that at the start of 2003 there were 18,131 professori ordinari (almost a one-third increase since 1997 despite economic cutbacks), 18,502 professori associati (also on the increase) and 20,900 ricercatori (fairly static). If you add them up, that makes 57,533 tenured teachers, or better, parasites supported by taxpayers' money, at 77 Italian universities who should be sacked and criminally prosecuted – all save perhaps a dozen who have made some sort of real effort to denounce the system. Note that I am not using the English word professor to translate the Italian professore since the latter is totally lacking in the moral and ethical presuppositions contained in the former.

You may be wondering why they should all be sacked if not all of them serve on the examining commissions which unlawfully assign posts to recommended candidates. Well the answer is that it is simply not credible that the rest are unaware of the situation. By doing nothing, by failing to report the corruption they automatically become accomplices in corruption. Such crucial failure to act is called omesso rapporto in Italian law and incidentally finds a parallel in the national Roman Catholic religion under sins of omission.

All of which is certainly a far cry from your Swedish universities. My advice to you on meeting an academic from an Italian university is to envisage an invisible placard attached to his or her forehead with the words: "I too got my job dishonestly." Your first question should be: "What have you personally done to expose and combat Italian university corruption?" Always remember – these people are natural actors who are past masters in the art of deception.

Italy is a holiday country with much to offer in the way of beauty and dolce vita. But forget Italian universities, which deserve that title only by courtesy and have nothing whatsoever to offer young minds in search of genuine teaching.

–– Domenico Pacitti, December 17 2004

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