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Why is the Human Rights Watch Academic Freedom Committee not watching Italy?

Domenico Pacitti replies to Giuseppe D. in Messina

Dear Domenico,

I am a student of social sciences at the Università degli Studi di Messina in Sicily. I do not give my full name to protect myself from retorsions but hope you can answer my letter. Our Italian newspapers, but also foreign newspapers, have reported that our university has been managed by the Mafia for 25 years and we have many problems because of this. Your article [Firm grip of corruption] about our university was published when I was still at school but I discovered it when I came to university in Messina where it is still circulated in Italian translation. NevertheIess, I am sorry to tell you that your article didn’t succeed in changing anything here. We took courage last year when JUST Response appealed for international help and collaboration to put pressures on Italian universities to change but still nothing is happening and we heard no more about this appeal. Do you have more news about this and who exactly were the people you asked for help?

–– Giuseppe D., Messina, Italy

Dear Giuseppe,

I am sorry but hardly surprised to hear that the University of Messina is still being run by Mafia, but that does not mean we should give up our efforts to improve the situation. I remember that article well and have never forgotten those people I met who showed great courage in speaking out. More Italian students and academics should follow their example.

The appeal you mention [Appeal] did not refer specifically to the University of Messina. It referred to the well-known case of David Aliaga, a Canadian who was denied his doctorate degree in circumstances which appeared to suggest a sort of examiners’ vendetta against him for having had the audacity to stand up for his rights. But the appeal went well beyond the Aliaga case in that it spotlighted widespread endemic corruption within the Italian university system, which obviously includes the University of Messina, and which covers a multitude of sins. To take just one example, deep-rooted corruption in the allocation of tenured university posts has been vehemently decried by no less than the current head of the Italian Senate, Marcello Pera [Italy plagued by Mafia-style universities]. We outlined these and other relevant facts about Italian universities to the Human Rights Watch Academic Freedom Committee and we asked their members to lend their support to a worthy cause and, as you say, collaborate with us in helping to bring the necessary pressure to bear on Italy.

On July 23 2003, we sent our letter to each of the following people at Human Rights Watch together with an introductory note:

·  Thomas Yeh, Academic Freedom Program Associate

·  Yolanda Moses, President of the American Association for Higher Education

·  Hanna Holborn Gray, Professor at the University of Chicago

·  Vartan Gregorian, President of the Carnegie Corporation of New York

·  Jonathan Fanton, President Emeritus of the New School for Social Research

·  Charles Young, Chancellor Emeritus of UCLA

As far as I know, Mr Yeh is still Academic Freedom Program Associate and official spokesman, while the others are all co-chairs of the HRW Academic Freedom Committee. Over six weeks later, having received no replies, we wrote to all of them again, politely inviting them to respond. Well, let's say we are still awaiting their replies.

Aliaga did eventually manage to get a statement from Mr Yeh, who apologised “for not being able to assist [...] in this matter”. He mentioned time and money limitations and concluded: “Unfortunately, the Italian university system is not currently a research priority for Academic Freedom work at Human Rights Watch.”

According to the Human Rights Watch website, the Academic Freedom Committee’s membership has since at least as far back as August 17 2000 included the following academics:

·  Johnetta Cole, Professor, Emory College

·  Joel Connaroe, President, John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation

·  Lord Ralf Dahrendorf, Governor, London School of Economics

·  Ariel Dorfman, Research Professor, Duke University

·  Thomas Ehrlich, Senior Scholar, The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching

·  James O. Freedman, President Emeritus, Dartmouth College

·  John Kenneth Galbraith, Professor Emeritus, Harvard University

·  Bernard Harleston, Professor, Harvard Graduate School of Education

·  Alice Stone Ilchman, President Emerita, Sarah Lawrence College

·  Stanley N. Katz, Professor, Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University

·  Nannerl O. Keohane, President, Duke University

·  Paul LeClerc, President, The New York Public Library

·  Fang Lizhi, Professor, University of Arizona

·  Walter E. Massey, President, Morehouse College

·  Dr. Krzysztof Michalski, Professor, Institute for Human Sciences

·  Rev. Joseph A. O'Hare, President, Fordham University

·  L. Jay Oliva, President, New York University

·  Yuri Orlov, Senior Scientist, Cornell University

·  Frank H.T. Rhodes, President Emeritus, Cornell University

·  Neil Rudenstine, President, Harvard University

·  George Rupp, President, Colombia University

·  Judith R. Shapiro, President, Barnard College

·  Michael I. Sovern, Columbia University School of Law

·  Chang-Lin Tien, NEC Distinguished Professor, University of California at Berkeley

So there you have an impressive list of people, some of whom totally ignored requests for support and collaboration in combating Italian university corruption, and some of whom chose to be members of a committee which ignored such requests.

At this point some interesting questions arise. Are we to assume that all of the above academics endorse Mr Yeh’s position that “the Italian university system is not currently a research priority for Academic Freedom work at Human Rights Watch”? What, one wonders, would be required for it to become a priority? Dropping an H-bomb on the University of Messina perhaps? Why is it that universities in so-called advanced western democracies appear to fall beyond the scope of the Committee’s investigations? Could there be a strong bias here? If so, to what extent is it a conscious bias? Or to what extent, like Orwell’s self-censorship, is it unconscious? Could it be that such distinguished academics are actively condoning the perversion of higher education in Italy because of a natural instinct to support colleagues who are in the same trade? Or does their resolute inaction rather reflect an embarrassed awareness of similar, though perhaps less spectacular, irregularities at their own, more "respectable" universities? Who decides what Human Rights Watch should be watching and what it shouldn’t be watching? And who is watching Human Rights Watch?

It might well prove rewarding to take these questions seriously and launch some in-depth investigations.

–– Domenico Pacitti, August 28 2004

Note: This article was published for the first time by JUST Response on August 28 2004.