Biggin, Susan. "University Appointments Scandal Widens," Science 270 (10 November 1995),
VENICE Physicist Giorgio Salvini, Italy's minister for research and universities, is probably
wishing he had stuck to science. Since his appointment in January, one of Salvini's most pressing
tasks has been to reform the discredited system of national competitions, or "concorsi," which
determine who will be appointed to university chairs. Meanwhile, a scandal that began to engulf
the system last year continues to widen, and Salvini's prescriptions for reform remain bogged
down in parliamentary politics. As a result, professorial appointments are stalled, and some 2000
posts are now vacant in university departments around the country.
The crisis confronting Italian universities is a product of a national fever for rooting out
corruption in public institutions and widespread dissatisfaction in the academic community with
the concorsi system. The system came under public scrutiny a year ago when a number of
concorsi were exposed as being rigged (Science, 11 November 1994, p. 965). Now more than
100 professors, mainly members of concorsi boards that judge the candidates, plus a handful of
academics who were awarded chairs, are under investigation for corruption. And the
investigations moved into a higher gear last week when a rush of press reports declared that
Rome's public prosecutor, Adelchi D'lppolito, who leads the concorsi inquiries nationally, has
collected enough evidence to threaten with trial nearly half of those under suspicion for abuse of
These investigations were preceded by swelling complaints from within the universities
themselves. The current system "threatens to bury alive once and for all the ambitions of our
young researchers and of the honest citizen," says Laura Calza, an associate professor in the
medical faculty at Cagliari University. What was initially a trickle of grievances turned into a
flood earlier this year when a professor from a medical faculty who chaired a concorso board was
given a 12-month suspended sentence for imposing his own proteges when assigning posts. The
scientific community saw that exposing corruption could bring results.
Since then, 10% of the appointments for full professor made in 1992 by 330 concorsi have been
blocked and some appointments revoked because of legal challenges, resignations, suspension of
board members, and inquiries by the National University Council (CUN). Investigations into-a
further 10 concorsi were announced last week.
When he was first appointed, Salvini had hoped to clean up the system in time for a new round of
concorsi beginning in June. He first put forward a proposal for a new system in March. It was
then revised by a special commission of the Senate, and Is the final bill was presented to the
Senate 6 weeks ago but has II not gone forward because of fierce argument over the new rules.
Powerful university professors are known to have links lo with parliamentarians and are lo
believed to be blocking the lo changes, fearing they would reduce their power. "There are some
people secretly opposing me," Salvini says.
Salvini's new system would maintain the two grades, associate and full professor, but in place of
the old concorsi boards, which assigned posts anywhere in the country, Salvini's scheme would
hold competitions in two phases: one national, which would choose a group of candidates 50%
larger than :he number of posts available; and a second, at university faculty level, which would
assign individual chairs. Full professors would be judged by up to 40 professors in the field,
would decide by majority vote.
The Senate's failure to act on the reform proposal has put Salvini in an unenviable position. The
old concorsi system is thoroughly discredited and reforms stalled, but universities have
meanwhile started an academic year with gaping holes in research and teaching staff. Some
professors are accusing Salvini of neglecting his duty not starting another round of concorsi. As a
result, Salvini said at a press conference last week that the situation is getting desperate. "The
concorsi can't wait," the said, so "I have decided that we'll go even if with the old rules."
And that has prompted an uproar from academics who have been demanding reforms. Salvini has
been inundated with letters of protest from the CUN and academics of all grades against
proceeding using the old rules. Claudio Modini, CUN member associate in the medical faculty at
Rome's "La Sapienza" University, says, "It is absurd that, despite public opinion, the
government, the [science] minister, the university community, all demanding a new law for the
concorsi, these are still being under the old system." As of now, however. there's no telling when
a new system will be in place.