Grotesque mafia-style corruption by Italy's university professors surpasses the imagination of Gogol. Domenico Pacitti explains why the soul of Italian academia is dead
ITALIAN ACADEMIA'S notoriously dominant culture of Mafia-style corruption was last week behind the two latest scandals to have emerged in a depressingly interminable flow. An alarm signal in most countries, they were tellingly shrugged off in Italy as little more than run-of-the-mill.
a grotesque swindle evoking Gogol's classic Dead Souls but beyond the
Russian novelist's wildest dreams in scale and audacity, 454 doctors and
specialists operating in the Venice area were charged with systematically
defrauding the health board out of billions of lire by trafficking in dead
patients in order to claim reimbursement for bogus tests and prescriptions.
new leads suggesting that the practice may well have spread nationally, the
health minister's call for severe action has met with feeble excuses blaming
bureaucracy and union pleas for a forgive-and-forget solution in exchange for
mass confessions. Yet the cast-iron university teaching posts held by many of
the accused remain unthreatened.
four distinguished medical professors at the University of Milan were among
those arrested in connection with another
health board swindle at the city's exclusive San Raffaele private
hospital where they were employed as consultants. The hospital is part of a
foundation established with Vatican support by a Roman Catholic priest, Don
Luigi Verzé, and includes the élite San Raffaele Life-Health University of
which he is also the rector.
professors are alleged to have devised an intricate system
whereby patients were ruthlessly exploited, at times to the
detriment of their own health, as pawns in an elaborate game of grossly
inflating reimbursable expenses and inventing others. Again, the professors'
university posts will remain secure whatever the final outcome.
year the rector of the University of Messina, Diego Cuzzocrea, whose 26 family
companies had gained a firm monopoly of the university's £80 million-a-year
contract work, and who had openly been running the university as a family
business, was actually voted back into a second term of office on a two-thirds
majority. He later resigned when accused of Mafia involvement, complicity in
the murder of another professor at the same university and simulated theft of
his own car in order to mislead murder investigations.
the rector of Naples's celebrated Suor Orsola Benincasa University and
president of the Italian Society of Legal and Political Philosophy, Antonio
Villani, was forced to resign when it was discovered that his five major works
were carbon copies of German texts plagiarised straight into Italian.
Indicatively, the popular reaction was neither indignation nor embarrassment
but surprise and amusement that a man in his position of power had allowed
himself to be caught.
recent cases include: the long-standing sexual harassment of female students
by their professors at the University of Bari; a professor of French
literature at Naples's Oriental University who is still lecturing despite
having been given a 14-month suspended sentence for illegally photocopying
books and forcing students to buy
them at exorbitant prices; two medical professors at the Universities of Genoa
and Turin, arrested for having demanded £80,000 from a student seeking a
place on a degree course and then rejecting him despite an advance payment of
£40,000; a group of professors of politics, economics, statistics, Romance
philology, law and medicine at the University of Messina accused of
privileging a number of university job applications and of selling exam passes
and degree certificates to students; a professor of architecture at the
University of Florence who calculated students' marks in proportion to the
value of personally commissioned porcelain and silverware gifts; and last but
not least, a professor of economics at the University of Bologna and
government adviser whose published work elicited
a welter of plagiarism charges.
such cases are simply the tip of a very large iceberg. Fear of reprisals and
sheer indifference prevent a myriad of others from ever surfacing, although
insiders see clearly what goes on. Outdated libel and slander laws which hinge
more upon the mediaeval notion of offence to a person's honour than upon
objective truth or falsehood, act as further deterrents against speaking out.
The result is a miracle of tacit complicity in organised corruption by the
nation's university teaching force of just under 60,000 which would do credit
to a totalitarian thought regime.
cynical disregard of academic merit and adverse sensitivity to moral integrity
employed in the vetting of prospective candidates for tenured posts ensures
the system's unimpeded perpetration. Susceptibility to corruption, weakness of
character and servility are, on the other hand, the chief qualities required.
Serious contestations, which are rare, have resulted in the colourful
spectacle of entire commissions and even faculties placed under arrest and led
away in handcuffs following recordings of their deliberations.
the higher education ministry was instituted in 1989, Italy has had eight
ministers, all professors, none of whom has even attempted to tackle the
situation seriously and some of whom have declared
their impotence to do so. Adding more laws to the 200,000 already in
existence has already proved futile and even counter- productive: in Italy
breaking the law is literally a way of life and asking for it to be upheld is
considered offensive. European derecognition of Italian universities as bona
fide institutions would be the logical step to take.
his thoughts on the feasibility of an international union of states, Bertrand
Russell once said that if culture were not to suffer, some way would have to
be found of combining cultural independence with political unity.
Unfortunately he did not say how this was to be achieved in cases where the
culture in question is one in which Mafia-style corruption is not only rampant
but also inextricably bound up with a country's social culture and major
Note: This article was published by JUST Response on June 10 2002. It first appeared in Parliament Magazine (Brussels) on March 22 1999.
See also: The Domenico Pacitti Archive