Doctoral torture: an interview with David Aliaga
inefficiency and corruption in Italian academia shattered a Canadian’s dream
of a doctoral degree in his ancestral country. David Aliaga relates the bitter
experience that has changed his life
JUST Response: Back in 1987 you left Canada with a degree in anthropology from the University of Calgary to read for a doctorate at the University of Calabria in southern Italy. Can you explain the reasons that led you to make this decision?
David Aliaga: Anthropologists love to do field research and study small towns and communities all over the world. Before I took my first degree I had already decided to work on emigration. Italy seemed the natural choice because of my family background – Berceto near Parma – though my great-grandparents later emigrated to Chile where I was born and brought up before eventually becoming a Canadian citizen. I specifically chose Torano Castello, a small self-contained village in the Calabrian province of Cosenza, after meeting my future wife and getting married there. It immediately seemed the ideal place to do research, see my own young family grow up and study the emigration and return process of peasant farmers from southern Italy, the most massive emigration movement of Italians in the twentieth century.
JUST Response: When did you first sense that things at the University of Calabria were not going quite as you had expected?
Aliaga: The head of the university’s general affairs department Magno Clarizia had assured me from the outset that I would receive funding for the full three years of the course. But Clarizia was apparently misinformed, and on being admitted I discovered that the Italian embassy in Ottawa was responsible for granting the funding. After persistent appeals during my first two years of study, the embassy eventually gave me a grant which covered only eight months. Since doctoral students in Italy at that time were not permitted to work, my family and I were forced to live in conditions of abject poverty for the entire period of my research. I still have the letters from the embassy officer in Ottawa, who very arrogantly and undiplomatically derided me for having turned to him for help.
Response: What sort of supervision did you
In my first year I contacted the president of one of the first Italian doctorate
associations Nuccio Ordine, now an associate professor of literature at the
University of Calabria, and explained to him that my supervisor was nowhere to
be found. I also complained to him about the fact that I was not getting proper
training or being helped in any way by my supervisor. He told me in no uncertain
terms to stop complaining or else I would be expelled from the course, which he
said would be dishonourable, and that he could in any case offer me no help at
all as I was a foreigner.
There were other instances in the whole process of applying for the course that
at the time I thought of as just "cultural" differences, though I no
longer see them as such: for example, the very fact that I was told to get
"raccomandazioni" [recommendations based on criteria other than merit,
Ed] from VIPs as a necessary part of my application. I talked to friends in
Torano Castello and they advised me to get in touch with Bishop Dino Travalzini
and local politicians Sandro Principe and Riccardo Misasi of the Socialist and
Christian Democrat parties respectively. I duly visited all three and received
their assurances that they would write to the commission members urging them to
admit me to the course. I have no idea if those visits produced the desired
effect, but it was my very first introduction to the murky world of
"raccomandazione" and its deleterious effects on Italian society.
Aliaga: I don’t really know what they felt since I didn’t see much of them. But I am pretty sure that they knew all about the system well in advance and accepted it. Each of the three members of the examining commission – one from Palermo and two from Rome – was able to get his own protégé accepted on the graduate course out of approximately ninety candidates from all over Italy. Some of the students I met were Satriani’s "bag carriers" and you could not really tell them what you thought of the course as it would certainly have led to my expulsion. So I had little choice other than to follow the advice of the president of the doctorate association. As far as I am concerned it was just like a dictatorship; the intimidation factor works so well that everyone knuckles under.
Response: Despite the considerable setbacks
that you were forced to undergo, you eventually completed and submitted your
doctoral dissertation, but only after requesting an extension because of
financial hardship. Meanwhile a United Nations programme allowed you to
repatriate to Chile. Is that right?
Aliaga: I was given less than three weeks’ advance notice of the examination date despite the fact that I had requested in writing at least 45 days’ notice in order to be able to make travel arrangements from Canada. I arrived at the ministry in Rome on the appointed date for the examination, July 25 l99l at 9 a.m., together with three Italian candidates. After waiting until noon, we were told that the commission was not coming for the examination. Rather than take responsibility, the ministry encouraged us to press charges against the commission, an absurd request which we declined. At that point I was informed by the ministry that I would have to return in November, which was not a viable option for me because of the high travel expenses. I was thus forced to contact members of the new commission myself and ask them to convene for an examination, which they did under protest in August 1991. Two members of the commission, one of whom was the president, had neither received nor read my final report – my supervisor had instructed me to write a 100-page report on my work and not a lengthy thesis as he was not prepared to spend much time reading it.
JUST Response: Eventually your examination did take place. Can you name the commission members and describe what happened?
Aliaga: The commission president was Amalia Signorelli from the Federico II university in Naples; the other two members were Giancarlo Castelli from the University of Chieti and Paola Atzeni from the University of Cagliari. I was at the ministry punctually on August 7 1991. The commission arrived thirty minutes late and waited another hour before calling me for my examination. I noticed that Signorelli did not have a copy of my report. They began questioning the validity of my work and asked why I had not added more statistical tables and data or cited Signorelli’s publications. I explained my forced reliance on foreign scholars both for guidance and for help in acquiring material, since the library was hopelessly inadequate. I also explained that Satriani had specifically instructed me to present the report and not a long thesis. The examination lasted less than 45 minutes and I was told to wait outside for the results. Two hours later I decided to go to the main office to inquire what had happened and was informed by a young secretary that I had failed. I asked to see the commissioners but was told me they had already left. When I asked to view the commission’s final evaluation, I was told that regulations permitted only successful candidates to do so. As soon as I returned to Calgary a fortnight later, I wrote to the ministry, as always by registered letter, asking the head of the doctorates office to release the commission’s final assessment but received no reply. Two months later, I wrote again explaining all the problems experienced and asked for a review of my case and a new examination. Again, I received no reply. In January 1992, I wrote another letter to the same officer and this time I did receive a reply stating that in previous cases requests for a new examination had not been granted. At that point I decided that it was time to start contacting colleagues and professional organisations for their help and support. It took more than six years of pressure by the international academic community before the ministry agreed to release my final evaluation to the University of Calgary.
Response: To what extent do you think your examiners were simply
being vindictive towards you?
Aliaga: There is no question that they were acting vindictively. They were punishing me for having had the guts to call them to Rome in the middle of their summer vacation. So far they have got away with it thanks to the collective silence and complicity of university ministry officials including Lucia Scalera, Remo di Lisio and Bruno Civello. It is, I think, highly significant that the ad hoc commission which was eventually appointed by CUN to review my case failed to address some key issues. These include why the commissioners were not present at 9 a.m. on July 25 1991 – this fact alone, which can be proven, is itself a sufficient motive for invalidating the examination – why two of them had not read my report, and the question of their good faith and neutrality. The ad hoc CUN commission has in fact been criticised by all the major organisations that have written to the minister on my behalf.
Response: Setting aside for the moment problems relating to Italian
bureaucracy, inefficiency, clientelism and even vindictiveness as you describe
them, how would you respond to the commission’s apparent conviction that your
final report was simply not up to required standard?
Aliaga: Well, let me just give you a few quotes from some of the internationally recognised specialists in the field who did read my report and took the trouble to send me congratulatory letters. Tullio Tentori, professor of anthropology at Rome’s La Sapienza university, referred to the report as a “serious, in-depth investigation". Professor Gianfausto Rosoli of the Centre for Migration Studies in Rome called it a “fine work, which takes its place in the valid framework of studies, both Italian and Anglosaxon of southern Italian communities". Professor Scott Raymond, head of the Department off Archaeology at the University of Calgary judged it to be “sound scholarship.” Professors Luigi Lombardi Satriani of the University of Calabria and Antonino Buttita of the University of Palermo wrote that it merited “considerable praise both for the critical insights achieved and for the commitment to careful research”.
JUST Response: You have provided us with a mountain of documentation covering over eleven years of letters of protest and solidarity by supporters of your cause. These include unanswered letters to the Italian universities ministry by US linguist and human rights activist Noam Chomsky, Chilean playwright and activist Ariel Dorfman, former Clean Hands magistrate Antonio Di Pietro, president of the Canadian Anthropology Society Margaret Rodman, president of the American Anthropology Society James Peacock, president of the Canadian Archaeology Society Jane Kelly, the Canadian Association of University Teachers, the Canadian Graduate Council, the American Association of University Professors, the Italian Doctorate Association (ADI), Canadian MP Diane Ablonczy – the list is neverending. Unanswered letters to Italian anthropology “baron” Tullio Tentori include those sent by Professor J. Scott Raymond (University of Calgary), Professor Doyle Hatt (University of Calgary) and Professor Russell King (University of Dublin). Readers may view letters of solidarity from Italian academics at Libro Aperto. You have also sent over one hundred e-mails to the rectors of Italy’s 63 state universities, again with no response. Meanwhile, some of the Italian academics who initially supported you appear to have withdrawn their support, offended by the implication that they could not have obtained their present academic posts without “raccomandazioni”. Is all of this correct?
Yes, though I should stress that about 80 per cent of the Italian academics who
initially supported me still do and that many others have since joined my
Response: More than 15 years have passed
since you first enrolled at Calabria and you have been battling for justice
since 1991. To what extent do you feel you are still realistically fighting for
your doctorate and to what extent has it become a symbolic battle for radical
change in Italian academia?
How old are your children now? What advice would you give them if they were
thinking of enrolling at an Italian university?
Aliaga: I am lucky to have three beautiful, smart and accomplished daughters aged 20, 19 and 12. They are fully aware that they have been robbed of the life they should have had. I would be quite hesitant to advise them or any foreign student to pursue their post-secondary education in Italy until there are appropriate safeguards in the form of appeal processes, full and correct evaluation of academics' teaching, research and work, etc. My own fault was that I naively believed that Italian universities were places of higher learning, lofty ideals and immense respect for students’ rights as the centrepiece of university life.
JUST Response: Ironically, your doctoral experience has placed you in an excellent position to write an authoritative anthropological dissertation on some of those aspects of Italian academia that have rendered it notorious throughout the world. Would you agree?
Aliaga: Yes. I have now gathered sufficient material to be able to write quite a few dissertations on Italian university corruption and I have given some thought to writing a good book about it. Unfortunately, university corruption is present more or less everywhere you go. The big difference is that our universities have self-regulatory bodies that work, whereas Italian universities do not. Also, our universities put students at the centre of the equation and give them the rights and treatment they deserve. Everyone complains about the evils of Italian universities but so far none of the self-appointed bodies, such as CUN, have carried out their work properly. Italian students have nowhere to turn, nowhere to direct their grievances and get redress for injustice. As the legal option is out of the question for most students, they remain quite literally at the mercy of their own victimisers.
Do you have a final message for education minister Letizia Moratti?
Aliaga: I am sure that Letizia Moratti could learn a lot from reading my dossier, though I can well imagine that all of our letters get hidden or destroyed before they even reach her desk, often by people of the political left. I would like to add that Italian leftist supporters used to speak to me a lot about Antonio Gramsci and how important it was to acquire a hegemony of "culture" in order to obtain power to favour the left. But I immediately understood that this control and hegemony only served, and continues to serve, the personal interest of the clan members and thus prevents Italian society from modernising. Some of the worst cases of corruption and dishonesty that I encountered during my stay in southern Italy came from the ranks of the political left. I am sorry to have to say this, but it happens to be the truth.
JUST Response: Looking back, which form of torture would you say was worse – Pinochet or your Italian doctoral experience?
Aliaga: The Italian doctoral experience has been a continuous torture and nightmare for my whole family and myself and has for that reason been a far worse experience even than Pinochet. The Pinochet torture and two years in jail are long since gone from my personal life, even though I am sure Pinochet continues to be a torture and a nightmare for those parents who still do not know the whereabouts of their children even today or for many people who suffered physical and psychological torture in those dictatorial prisons.
Note: This interview was first published by JUST Response on December 21 2002. David Aliaga may be contacted at email@example.com.
See also: The Domenico Pacitti Archive