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Apostles' greed: cupola control, cosmetic credibility and high-flying hypocrisy

Domenico Pacitti replies to Robert J. Martini in Berkeley, USA

Dear Domenico,

Around mid-September the Corriere della Sera published an open letter of appeal from 12 illustrious Italian academic apostles of hope, including Nobel prizewinner Rita Levi Montalcini. It's almost certain you already know all about this but I attach a copy to be sure.

Despite my very imperfect Italian, I think I understood OK that they were telling their government to get rid of corruption in Italian universities – and not before time. I was struck by the fact that it read almost like a follow-up to your July and August replies to readers on the same subject [Why Italy's 50,000 university teachers should be sacked & Why is the Human Rights Watch Academic Freedom Committee not watching Italy?]. There you estimated that “all save perhaps a dozen who have made some sort of real effort to denounce the system” should be sacked and you invited Italian academic to speak out. Next thing you know, a dozen of them go right ahead and do just that! I was wondering if there was a direct causal connection there and if either you or JUST Response were working with them on this.

I’d also like to know how you view the open letter, whether you think it will have any real effect, how positive it is that some of the illustrious big fish in Italian universities have at last started to campaign against corruption and what else they could do. I mean, surely it’s the big fish themselves, the governing cupola of the whole outfit, who are mainly responsible for the corruption in the first place?

–– Robert J. Martini, Berkeley (CA), USA

Dear Robert,

Your suggestion about the timing of the appeal and the number of “apostles” is interesting. But I must say that I have had absolutely no contact with the signatories and am unaware of any causal connections, though it would be nice to think that we are getting through to these people. I am sure that readers will form their own judgements.

One of the twelve signatories is, as you say, Rita Levi Montalcini, the 1986 Nobel prizewinner for medicine. The other eleven comprise six rectors and former rectors, three directors of prestigious institutes, a legal scholar and the president of the Italian national academy of sciences.

The signatories begin by describing universities generally as having unique roles in education and research. They go on to say that in the case of Italian universities “strongly sectorialised local mechanisms” controlled by “closed corporations” condition the allocation of new and promoted posts to such an extent that Italian universities now “seriously risk no longer fulfilling these roles”. Italian universities, they admit, are facing a credibility crisis. Posts should be assigned “exclusively on candidates’ scientific merit, on the quality of their research and on the correspondence of these to an overall design,” they say. Only the public perception of a “transparent and rigorous” application of these principles can justify requests for more funding. According to the signatories, Italian universities must “recover” their ethics and “re-establish” the principle of objective evaluation of candidates based on merit, while corrective measures for corporative malpractices should be “re-introduced”. They conclude by asking the Italian government to “re-establish” national commissions to assign new and promoted posts, thus abolishing the local commissions.

For reasons I shall explain, I view the appeal as highly significant in an extremely negative sense. Anyone unfamilar with the Italian university reality would be led by the appeal to conclude quite erroneously that local commissions are solely to blame for the credibility crisis and that the problem would be permanently resolved by re-instating national commissions. This seriously misleading impression is further reinforced by the call for objective evaluation and other positive values, which are normally laudable proposals but whose real purpose here appears to be that of convincing the reader of the signatories’ good faith.

Our readers should understand that local commissions replaced national commissions only in 1998, so that the signatories are in effect complaining about a very limited 6-year period. On the other hand, there is no shortage of documentation relating to the last fifty years and more of Italian university mafia complete with national cupolas, as decried in 1995 by the present president of the Italian senate Marcello Pera. So it is simply not credible that the illustrious signatories do not know these truths since all but one of them – perhaps significantly Ms Montalcini, the Nobel laureate – have succeeded not only in entering, but in even reaching the top of a system which rewards strict compliance to the caste's notorious internal code of behaviour. Yet they speak of recovering ethics, re-establishing objective evaluation and re-introducing corrective measures, as though this had been in the natural order of things prior to 1998 rather than absolutely extraneous to Italy. The logical conclusion is that the true purpose of the signatories’ letter cannot have been that of eliminating corruption at Italian universities.

Well this of course raises the obvious question as to their true purpose or purposes. Some possibilities might well include: greed for power lost to local barons in 1998; the need for a symbolic clean-up job in order to justify their demands for increased funding; an attempt to regain albeit purely cosmetic credibility in order to keep collaboration and exchanges with foreign universities running smoothly; a proud attempt to detach themselves and their élite institutions from the rest of the Italian university rabble; or the legitimation of their own professional standing within the system by providing an artificially recent watershed dividing corrupt from honest practices.

Another factor to be borne in mind is that Italian inability to "walk a straight line" applies especially to academics and the way they write letters. Their traditional mentality, which is instinctively guarded, defensive and in a broad sense political, prevents them from expressing their thoughts in a clear, linear fashion. The natural form of discourse is equivocation. They tend to want to say too many things at once whilst at the same time leaving loopholes which allow them later to deny having said certain things in the first place. Nor is it very easy for 12 Italians to agree on anything among themselves. The letter may well have undergone many cuts and adjustments before being approved by all 12. Paradoxically, the signatories’ open letter itself stands as a flagrant and instructive demonstration of what is actually wrong with Italian universities.

You ask what else they should do. Well first let’s just ask what they should have done. They should have told the whole truth, thereby providing a positive example for others to follow instead of teaching the way of hypocrisy and falsehood. It might not be too much to hope for a rectification of this in the near future.

As regards what else they should do, well they could begin by quantifying the damage caused to the unfortunate victims of the corrupt system who were either forced to go abroad or else give up the idea of entering academia altogether. The Italian ministry could collaborate in a new, long-term transparency project on the Internet, publicising full details of all adjudicating commissions, candidates and publications for all subjects over the last 50 years. They might also arrange for the publication of successful candidates' theses and books on the Internet so that comparative standards over the years could be adequately studied.

Various kinds of pressure should be brought from different directions. Illustrious Italian academics should be pressed more into telling the whole truth even if this means openly admitting that they too inevitably obtained their posts unjustly. New effective ways should be sought of rewarding truth telling and punishing complicity in corruption and collective silence. The Italian government should consider handing over the whole task of teaching staff selection to commissions composed entirely of non-Italian academics who have not been contaminated by socially accepted corruption through living in Italy. Most important of all, salaries and funding to Italian universities should be cut right across the board and academia rendered far less of a parasite’s life so that only the most dedicated and determined will be interested in entering.

So what will happen in the end? As usual, absolutely nothing substantive will happen. Why? Because Italian tolerance of corruption is legendary and knows no limits, even where the education of their own children is concerned. The first real step towards solving a difficult problem is having the will to solve it. And that in the case of Italian university corruption is precisely what is lacking.

–– Domenico Pacitti, September 29 2004

The 12 signatories of the appeal:-

Sabino Cassese, head of administrative law, La Sapienza University, Rome and ex-minister for public affairs in the Ciampi government
Adriano De Maio, rector of the Luiss Guido Carli private university, Rome
Luigi Donato, director of the clinical physiology institute of the Italian national research council (CNR), Pisa
Massimo Egidi, rector of University of Trento
Rita Levi Montalcini, winner of 1986 Nobel prize in medicine and life senator
Giovanni Marchesini, rector of the University of Padua
Carlo Ossola, ex-rector of the University of Bergamo
Sandro Pontremoli, rector of the University of Genoa
Gian Tommaso Scarascia Mugnozza, president of the National Academy of Sciences, Rome
Carlo Secchi, rector of the Luigi Bocconi private commercial university, Milan
Salvatore Settis, director of the Scuola Normale Superiore, Pisa
Riccardo Varaldo, director of the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna, Pisa

Note: This article first appeared in JUST Response on September 29 2004.