A letter from David Aliaga, Calgary
Dear Prof. Latorre,
Almost nine years ago, in 1997, I wrote an open letter to the Italian universities’ minister denouncing the Italian university system for what it really is: an extremely corrupt, unethical and nepotistic system. As far as I know, it was the first open letter of its kind. Recent scandals have re-affirmed my belief that the Italian academic system is quite unable to cure itself of its ills. On the other hand, as I am sure you are aware, increasing pressure is being brought to bear from both inside and outside Italy by distinguished colleagues whose courageous words and actions are beginning to have their effect. They have begun to rock the boat and let the world know something that everyone should already have known, namely that Italian universities are just a microcosm, or more regrettably a perfect mirror, of contemporary Italian society and culture.
My personal, insider’s view as an anthropologist is that the Italian university system does not appreciate the presence of foreigners who do not play by the Italian rules of the game, and that means rigged commissions, nepotism, cronyism, blatant cheating and plagiarism. The picture I paint, I realize, is rather strong but confirmation can easily be had on the question by consulting the various articles and letters in JUST Response or simply by selecting a combination of the keywords ’Italian’, ’university’, ’corruption’ and ’mafia’ and inserting it into Google or another major search engine. This situation has also been well registered by the world’s top education journals - the Times Higher Education Supplement (London), the Chronicle of Higher Education (Washington) and the Guardian Higher (Manchester). You need only consult their archives. I might add that I don’t think that stereotypes or discriminatory views enter my description of the situation, given that I am of Italian origin myself.
My own struggle began following the appalling experience I underwent as a doctorate student at the University of Calabria from 1987 to 1990, comparable in its own way to the three years I had spent in a Pinochet prison and torture chamber for defending and supporting the Salvador Allende government. My tutor was almost totally absent for my full 3-year period of study. I saw him no more than three or four times in all and for an overall total of approximately 30 minutes. On the day of my exam, 25 July 1991, after I had purposely flown back to Italy from Canada, the entire examining commission failed to turn up. It cost me three years of my life and compromised the future of my family. You can read the full account in my Doctoral torture interview. I also noted that Italian student leaders lacked the courage to challenge the university power structures of corruption and nepotism despite the fact that they perceived, and still do perceive, all of this very clearly. The way Italian universities suck the vitality out of students and researchers and the money from taxpayers’ pockets likens them to vampires (Italy’s vampire universities).
So there is little doubt that your university is riddled with unethical behavior and lack of modern democratic standards of justice and fair play. A good example of unethical behavior was the setting up of an ad-hoc commission to investigate my case by the Italian National Universities’ Council (CUN) as ordered by the then universities’ minister. It turned out that the real task of that commission was the attempt to sweep under the rug the clamor for justice put forth on my behalf by well-respected international academic organizations, scholars, politicians, a bishop and the media.
I would like to quote in this open letter to you the words written by Mr. F.B. Henry, Bishop of Calgary, in a letter to the then universities’ minister Ortensio Zecchino: “As a former Rector and Dean of Theology at St. Peter’s Seminary (King’s College) and University of Western Ontario, I am quite familiar with due process in academia. In view of my experience I am shocked at the apparent number of irregularities in the academic process that he was subjected to, the lack of transparency and accountability of officials, and the lack of response and/or acknowledgement to his request for a transcript of his academic work completed to date. This situation is simply unconscionable”.
It is already an uphill battle to try to elevate the image Canadians and Americans have of Italians, due to old diehard stereotypes and discrimination, without having to explain the unethical and corrupt behavior of some of my Italian colleagues. I know that there are many Italian colleagues who are doing the best they can under a system that rewards corruption and unethical behavior. I ask them to come forward and do everything they can to stop this sad state of affairs, this in the name of their own sons and daughters and the future of the Italian university.
As one US academic critic has put it, if Italy’s corruption must be dragged kicking and screaming out of the 11th century and into the 21st, and if doing so means dragging stubborn and egoistic Italian academics out into the open, then so be it.
Let me formally invite you in your capacity as rector of the university where I studied for my doctorate to take immediate action to rectify this sad state of affairs and help transform Italian universities into a modern and fully democratic institution.
Note: This letter was first published by JUST Response on January 20 2006.