Something about Italian Universities

(October 5th, 2016) Paediatrician Donato Rigante, 50 years old, recently published a letter in The Lancet, in which he has described a system of inequality in the academic promotion of professionals at Italian universities. We wanted to know more.

Starting his medical studies in 1986, Donato Rigante earned his Doctor of Medicine degree at the Università Cattolica Sacro Cuore in 1991, supported by yearly scholarships based on merits. During his professional career, he has published more than 200 scientific works in peer-reviewed international journals as well as more than 230 abstracts/scientific communications, touching on a variety of topics, ranging from inborn errors of metabolism via rare or emerging conditions in the paediatric age to paediatric rheumatology. Currently, he is assistant at the Università Cattolica Sacro Cuore in Rome. In August, Rigante published an open letter entitled “Academic apartheid in Italy” in The Lancet. In this letter, he describes how the present Italian university is run by a few very senior academics who foster a power system disregarding professionals’ merit.

You recently published a letter in The Lancet, calling attention to the unfair hiring procedure at Italian universities. Can you please elaborate?

Many recruitment procedures at Italian universities are “not” completely transparent, and this is true for every faculty - from Philosophy to Law or History. Everybody knows it and many scientists adapt to this reality because, unfortunately, those who criticise these mechanisms appear to be disadvantaged. This is particularly true for the faculty of Medicine. The Italian press has paid great significance to the Medicine faculties in different Italian towns and reported various cases regarding the application process within different medical specialties.

If this had been reported in the press, how did the society and politics respond?

Many Italian politicians have tried to regenerate the university system. In 2008, the Gelmini law introduced the rule that three bibliometric eligibility criteria should be applied to judge candidates for academic promotion at the University. This was supposed to provide transparency and clear rules to the promotions, in accordance with the European Charter for Researchers and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. In particular, the Gelmini law affirmed that only candidates reaching two of three bibliometric thresholds should be considered eligible for full professorship. In Italy, promotions are assessed by committees that consist of five commissaries, who would have had to comply to the bibliometric thresholds. By this, the law should have warranted transparency and meritocracy, and should have deprived commissaries of any discretionary decision power.

But apparently the law was not effective?

Unfortunately, and sadly, the Gelmini law did not impair the historical arbitrary assessment of the Italian committees in the recruitment of professionals deserving full professorship. This was because an amendment to the law introduced the rule of “supplementary non-bibliometric thresholds”. This introduction gave the commissaries an opportunity to recruit professionals along their “personal” subjective judgement. So, these “supplementary” criteria became crucial for any final decision, regarding people who were aspiring to obtain full professorship. In the end, that rule made possible the cooptation of candidates.

How has this system of promotion affected your personal career?

I’m an assistant (the exact name in Italy is “researcher”) working at the Institute of Paediatrics of the Università Cattolica Sacro Cuore in Rome. My specific field of interest is management of autoinflammatory diseases. My eligibility to obtain a professorship position was evaluated in the period 2012-2014. In the discipline of paediatrics and infantile neuropsychiatry, 280 candidates from all over Italy were examined. Every candidate would have sent his/her own curriculum vitae to the committee of five commissaries. Unfortunately, I was judged negatively, although all commissaries recognised that my scientific production was good - with my name as first or last author in high-impact journals - and that I passed all three bibliometric thresholds. The reasons for the negative judgement were weak leadership, few research projects and poor didactic activity. This was an illogical judgement for me. Indeed, at that time, my list of publications included 387 total works, with 98 printed papers in peer-reviewed journals. Only 20 were the result of collaborative researches. In addition, I was the coordinator of the paediatric section for the Periodic Fever Research Center at my University, teacher of paediatrics in four different post-graduate schools (paediatrics, infantile neuropsychiatry, cardiac surgery, rheumatology), one of the pioneer members of the Autoinflammatory Disease Italian Patients’ Community (connecting patients with hereditary periodic fevers and physicians across different specialties), reviewer of 14 different scientific journals, principal investigator of seven research protocols supported by the Italian Ministry of Health, and collaborator on 11 international and national research projects.

Have you found out more about this promotion? What about the other candidates?

Only 144 out of 280 candidates were judged positively for an academic promotion. Obviously, among those promoted professionals, some did deserve the promotion but many others were promoted even though they had reached only one of three bibliometric thresholds or had an overall low number of scientific publications, much less than had required. This was possible because their non-bibliometric thresholds were judged positively. Among non-promoted professionals (those who were judged ineligible for academic promotion) were many clinicians who had reached all three bibliometric thresholds, but who were penalised by a negative or insufficiently-positive judgement given to the non-bibliometric thresholds. So, I was not the only one who experienced that.


How did you find out this information?

The commissaries’ judgements were accessible to everyone on a website, created by the Italian Ministry of Education. After reading the commissaries’ judgments on promoted and non-promoted colleagues, it could be argued that many academic promotions were also given to professionals with poor curricula.

Can you describe the situation amongst the “non-selected” academics? Are other people trying to change the system as well?

Many professionals are afraid to expose their personal histories.

Do you fear personal consequences after your letter was published in The Lancet?

I have not noticed direct objective consequences, so far. But some believe that my position will not change and that I will remain a “researcher” until retirement.

Have you noticed the negative impact of the system in your earlier career?

No, I have only noticed this now. For my present assistant position, I passed a competition within my University in 2004. And I am indeed very grateful to the Università Cattolica Sacro Cuore for enabling me to grow within this fold as a clinician.

What do you think are the consequences for Italian research?

I think the system lessens Italy's scientific potential. Every country competes against the next country. For example, in the USA, universities are strongly competitive, yet they are interested in choosing the best professionals through curricula only. You do not need to be anyone privileged - you need to be only “you” with your own competence and your own projects. 

What was your motivation to write the letter to The Lancet?

There was a degree of frustration. All my life I have worked hard to achieve good scientific records, in order to play a fully active part in the academic university life. Now, I see that all this work has not brought me the rewards I had hoped for. And this is true not only for myself, but also for other researchers and even for younger generations. The letter expressed my sincere hope to modify this non-limpid and anti-meritocratic Italian system.

What are your personal plans for your future and your career?

I have reconsidered the value of defeat and disappointment, and the potential of these feelings. Being somewhat disappointed gave me a fantastic opportunity to call into question my thoughts about life and future. However, I always feel committed to the management of children with rare diseases, I keep on working on different clinical projects related to orphan and autoinflammatory disorders, and start every day with new challenges in research. Considering honesty as crucial for myself and doing my clinical work with humility. But without undermining my own dignity.

Interview: Karin Lauschke

Photos(2): D. Rigante

Last Changes: 11.01.2016