questions on Italian universities answered
Domenico Pacitti replies
to Jonathan Collins in Washington DC, USA
- Dear Domenico,
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.
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
Washington DC, USA
- Dear Jonathan,
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.
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?
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
predisposes them to accept their professori's unethical conduct,
cheating and corruption as part of everyday normality.
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
Is this system of "raccomandazioni" also
symptomatic of a certain amount of arbitrariness within the university
examination system itself?
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
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.
there really more corruption in Italy, or is there simply more openness in
talking about it?
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.
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
you see general public acceptance as the primary obstacle to real change in
Italy when it comes to the culture of "raccomandazioni"?
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.
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.
there anything one person can actually do when confronted with this sink or
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 –
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
What is your opinion on the way the élite upper
class defends the Italian university system without questioning it?
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.
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
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.
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
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?
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.
What is your take on the Italian élite's
view of its
background as superior while at the same time it perpetuates a system that
is seemingly not based on merit?
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
Is practical application of theory barely even touched on, or is this an
exaggeration on my part?
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.
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.
article was published for the first time by JUST Response on December 16