In September​ the Uruguayan footballer Luis Suárez turned up at the Università per Stranieri in Perugia to take an Italian test. This tough language exam, a requirement for anybody seeking Italian citizenship, was introduced by Matteo Salvini, the far-right leader of the anti-immigrant Lega, when he was interior minister in 2019. Suárez passed. There were rumours that he was about to sign for Juventus, Italy’s biggest club, and the winner of Serie A for the last nine years. Juventus had already signed their allotted number of non-EU players, so if Suárez was to join the team he needed the B1 Level Italian Language Certificate. Within days, all hell had broken loose. There were claims that the exam had been fixed. A judicial investigation was opened. The chief prosecutor in Perugia issued a statement alleging that the exam topics were ‘pre-emptively agreed with the candidate and the relative score was attributed even before its execution’. Police phone taps were released to the press. The linguistics professor who tutored Suárez was caught on tape admitting ‘he doesn’t utter a word of Italian,’ but ‘he will pass, because we can’t fail someone who earns ten million euros a year.’ Later, she posted a picture of herself and the footballer on Twitter, claiming it had been a ‘pleasure’ to teach him. The investigation continues, but its outcome won’t matter to Suárez: in the end, he signed for Atlético Madrid.

The story is only sensational because there’s a global sports star at its centre. I lived in Italy for twenty years, give or take, and although I never worked full-time for an Italian institution, I had enough dealings with its universities to be unsurprised by the allegations of corruption in the Suárez case. To have a career in an Italian university you have to be attached to a senior professor, usually a man, usually of a certain age. These immensely powerful figures are known as baroni – ‘barons’. They can be on the left or the right. All posts and other privileges pass through the baroni. Without a barone on your side, you may as well pack it in. University posts are generally filled by means of a public competition – a concorso – which is open to anyone with the right qualifications. In practice, concorsi are usually fixed. They are designed for one person, usually an internal candidate who has been waiting for this particular concorso for years. The new researcher or lecturer owes his or her job to the barone, and will remain loyal to them. With time and luck, the new appointees might become baroni themselves. The mismatch between formal rules and their application is characteristic of Italy. These networks of power and patronage have been studied by anthropologists: in some faculties at the University of Bari, for example, networks of family and kinship relationships stretch back generations. Disputes and divisions are often focused around key baroni. In one university two separate but essentially identical departments were created around two highly powerful and influential scholars.

Many academics stay at the university where they themselves studied (and which is often in their home town). They study subjects that are often linked to the local area: historians working in a Florentine university are likely to specialise in Florentine history, and so forth. There is no system of sabbatical leave, so the opportunity to do research abroad, or even within Italy, is limited. Moving away, cutting your ties with your ‘home’ institution, is career suicide. A senior academic will often ‘use’ a young researcher to do work which they themselves have not had the time or inclination to carry through. You hang around, keep your head down, working in the knowledge that the spoils will be attributed to senior academics, until your time finally comes, and you are awarded a post through a concorso. Even after this, you still have to pay your respects to your barone at every opportunity, organise special events in their honour and cite them continuously in your work.

Tim Parks’s latest novel, Italian Life: A Modern Tale of Loyalty and Betrayal (Harvill Secker, £16.99), takes on the university sector, in which he worked for more than two decades. It would be easy to identify Parks with his anti-hero, James, who observes the chaos and corruption around him but does little to try and change things. Parks anticipates this conflation in his prologue, guessing that the reader will say ‘That’s Parks,’ but adds that he has mixed fact and fiction. The department Parks describes is presided over by the monstrous and pompous Beppe Ottone, but Parks’s real disdain is reserved for Ottone’s sidekick, Bettina Modesto (which translates as ‘mediocre’). She is used as an example of anti-meritocratic promotion: her rise has nothing to do with her academic talents and everything to do with her skills as a networker and her unflinching loyalty to Ottone.

In one excruciating passage, a hall of students and colleagues are forced to listen to, and praise, Modesto’s dreadful keynote speech:

Modesto sipped some more water, shifted her weight from one high heel to the other, announced, ‘and hence in conclusion’ for the third time, then launched into another sentence as long as it was formless and meaningless. The words ‘Lacanian mise-en-scène’ … flashed by. James was lost, but also awed … Had the audience been made up of independent agents they would have been laughing their collective head off. As it was, quite a number of students were now slipping away. The heavy black curtain over the rear exit twitched every few seconds as eager hands pushed it aside. But the professors were obliged to sit in solemn silence, as Modesto now announced her conclusion for the fourth time.

Afterwards, an eminent politician and ‘old friend’ of Ottone’s, invited along for the occasion, thanks Modesto for ‘an excellent analysis of Italy’s image in the world today; I must say one rarely hears speeches of this calibre in the Senate.’

Parks is very good on the tribalism and peculiarities of Italian life. His previous books have described the country’s hardcore football fans, its medical system, its trains and much besides. He’s adept at showing the way university life in Italy – conferences, talks, research projects – is designed to reinforce existing power structures and provide kudos to those in positions of authority. A distinguished Italian academic once asked me to ‘come and talk’ to his university students. The slot was three hours long. He talked for two hours 45 minutes, referring to me as ‘Foot’ as he occasionally turned or gestured towards me. I was expected to nod or smile knowingly. He finished by asking for questions or ‘contributions’, but time had run out. On another occasion I was invited to visit a university department. A series of professors sat me down in small offices overflowing with books. One by one, they delivered me mini lectures on the subject of my recent book. It took me a while to realise what was happening. They were connecting themselves to my research, inserting themselves into my story. At the end of the visit, the department organised a ‘presentation’ of the book. The whole department showed up. This turned out to be an opportunity for a series of senior academics to lay into my work while I sat in the audience. I very nearly walked out. But I took the flack with stoicism. They all seemed delighted.

I had similar experiences travelling around Italian universities to present my book on the radical psychiatry movements that transformed Italian mental health care in the 1960s and 1970s. A large panel, mainly or entirely male, most of them wearing suits, would sit on a stage. An authority figure (a politician, psychiatrist or academic) would ‘say a few words’ and then disappear due to ‘previous commitments’. Few had opened the book, let alone read it, except to check for their name in the index. Most used the occasion to recount their own role in ‘the movement’. Some were furious that I had not mentioned them (indexes can be dangerous). No one in the audience ever got a chance to speak. Afterwards, there would be a fantastic meal, fine wines, and everyone would relax and gossip.

No one is to blame for this sort of tradition: it’s the institution that’s at fault, not the individuals who work within it. In 1968, students tried to change things. They occupied the universities, set up counter-courses, called for the abolition of exams. In Turin the charismatic student leader Guido Viale slapped a professor, and stood up on the ‘sacred’ desk at the front of the lecture theatre to harangue his fellow occupiers. Some concessions were won. Exams were made public, you could refuse a mark and resit the exam, admissions policies were freed up. But the institution itself was not reformed. Hierarchies were never effectively challenged. Universities remain exam factories (as do schools). The brief moment of the ‘political mark’ in the 1970s, when academics gave everyone the same result so as to ‘level out’ social and institutional inequalities, soon faded away.

Of course some people don’t play the institutional game. In 1961, Franco Basaglia accepted a job as director of the psychiatric hospital at Gorizia, on the border with Yugoslavia. Taking such a post was a sign of failure for ambitious psychiatrists at the time. Basaglia had spent many years as an assistant professor at Padua but was considered too radical for promotion. As he sat at his desk in Gorizia for the first time, some documents were brought for him to sign. They included forms giving permission for various patients to be tied to their beds. The permission was retrospective. To everyone’s surprise, Basaglia refused to sign. Seventeen years later Italy became the first country to pass a law ordering the closure of all large-scale psychiatric hospitals. But those were different times. Nobody like Basaglia would ever become a vice chancellor or a rettore of a university today.

Parks understands how much of university life is a performance, perhaps especially in Italy, the summit of which is the thesis examination. Professors in robes sit behind a desk in a small room. A student perches on a chair in front of them. Family members and friends are grouped in a spectators’ area in the background. Perhaps only one of the professors will actually have read the thesis (it might not be the person named as the candidate’s supervisor) but all of them have pristine bound copies. There is a rapid presentation of the thesis by the student, a few questions. Then the student and his party leave. After that, there is a private discussion, which is really a power play. All students pass, so any debate has to do with the final mark. The maximum is 110 with lode, extra merit, and its award has more to do with internal politics and favour-swapping than the quality of the student’s work. Soon everyone is called back into the room. If the professors are standing, it is 110 and lode. There is applause, and then everyone spills out into an often beautiful courtyard. Prosecco is opened. A laurel crown is placed on the student’s head. In Milan, tradition demands that the student jump over a small hedge. A song is often sung: ‘Dottore, Dottore, Dottore del buco del cul, vaffancul, vaffancul’ (in Parks’s translation: ‘Doctor of arseholery, up your arse, up your arse’).

I once examined a PhD thesis in a university in central Italy, one of the oldest and most prestigious in the world. It seemed to me that the professors addressing the student were playing to the gallery. Some had done their work diligently; others had merely scribbled a few notes on the back of the thesis. There is no requirement to provide a formal report. For some reason, the student’s supervisor tried to lower the mark. I didn’t understand why. He was successful, although the student would never know he was responsible. Then we went for a slightly drunken lunch. Job done. The student had no aspirations to work in academia, and so, in a way, it didn’t matter. In any case, as in the UK, proper university jobs are almost impossible to come by, especially in the humanities. Most who do a PhD will go on to do something else, rather than hang around working for free or on temporary contracts. This system strengthens the role of the baroni, with a large number of would-be academics vying for an ever diminishing number of posts.

Can these institutions be changed? From time to time there will be scandals, arrests, investigations into cases such as Suárez’s. But they always come to nothing. The rules have not been broken. The unwritten ones have been followed. Favouritism and the exercise of power aren’t illegal, or can’t be proved so. This is as true in the UK as it is in Italy. I have seen eminent professors in this country push their own students time and time again on grant or appointment panels. Perhaps the Beppe Ottones of this world will always be in charge.

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Vol. 43 No. 7 · 1 April 2021

As one of the thousands of academics who have left Italy, I sympathise with John Foot (LRB, 4 March). Of course there is something peculiarly Italian about the relations between academic institutions and local and national politics. But this is not the entire picture. The number of internationally qualified academics that the system produces should count for something. More important, Foot neglects to mention the lack of university funding, especially during the long years of austerity between 2008 and 2020, which is crucial to understanding the absence of reform. In the end, he recognises that the relations between academics and power aren’t just an Italian issue. The more I work in the UK academic system, the more I think that the ‘university baron’, despite some national variations, is a universal category.

Simone Maghenzani
Girton College, University of Cambridge

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