Posted on behalf of Nicola Nosengo
Scientists rarely appear on prime-time television in Italy, and when they do it is often for the wrong reasons. That was the case for Luigi Frati, a medical scientist and the rector of the Sapienza University of Rome. On Sunday night he was put under the spotlight by Report, an investigative news programme on the public channel RAI3. During the programme, Frati was shown as epitomizing the widespread nepotism that plagues Italian universities.
Frati became rector of Sapienza – Europe’s largest university – in October 2008, after 16 years as head of the Faculty of Medicine. During that long tenure, three of his closest relatives were appointed as professors in the same faculty. His wife, formerly a high school teacher, became professor of history of medicine. His daughter got a post as professor of legal medicine – with a degree in law but not in medicine, an anomaly for this discipline. His son Giacomo, a cardiologist, became an associate professor in 2005 at only 31, a striking exception in a country where academic careers are notoriously slow.
The programme mostly focused on his son’s case, and in particular on the suspicious timing of Giacomo Frati’s most recent career jump – a story which had already appeared in newspapers, although with fewer details. Giacomo Frati became full professor last December, only a few days before a university reform law was approved by the Italian Parliament. The new legislation prevents rectors from hiring their own relatives up to the fourth degree; so only a few days later it would have become impossible for Luigi Frati to approve his son’s new appointment. By showing minutes of the University Board’s meetings between September and November, Report accused the rector of speeding up the selection procedure in order to save his son from the effects of the new law. The younger Frati has kept his position despite a subsequent ruling by an administrative court, which declared the selection “illogical” and “discriminating against other candidates”.
According to Report, Luigi Frati refused to be interviewed, but instead sent a long written response stating that his choices were all legitimate and based on merit, and inviting the reporters to read his son’s list of publications. He also did not return Nature‘s request for comments about the show.
Roberto Perotti, a professor of economics at Bocconi University in Milan who has studied nepotism in Italian universities, says that Report’s investigation was accurate, but that focusing on a single case is misleading. “It probably left many viewers with the impression that Frati is an exception, whereas he is the rule,” he says. “Similar stories can be found in most Italian universities, though the worst situations are in medical faculties and in the South.” A quick look at any university’s staff directory, he says, is enough to see how many names recur suspiciously.
Perotti thinks the new law will not bring many changes. “Some universities have already adopted rules that prevent rectors and faculty heads from hiring relatives, and they have been easily circumvented,” he says. For example, by placing sons and wives in other universities where the rector is a friend, and returning the favor later. The only solution to Italian academic nepotism, he says, would be economic incentives to promote a meritocracy. “If funding for the university depended substantially on the scientific output, Frati’s colleagues would probably not allow him to hire his whole family,” he says.
But that is not how the Italian system works, and initial plans to introduce such a mechanism in the latest reform have been abandoned.
Image: Luigi Frati