Home > European Universities > Why Does Italian Academia Suck? — Crooked Timber

Why Does Italian Academia Suck? — Crooked Timber

Why Does Italian Academia Suck? — Crooked Timber.

A worrying (and somewhat amusing) post from Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber. For these and many other reasons, it is going to be difficult to see the mainstream of European universities competing in large numbers in research and teaching quality with those of the mainstream in the USA anytime in the next decade or two. [As an aside, and with due acknowledgement to the limitations of ranking systems, it is possibly worth noting that there are no Italian Universities in the top 100 THES-QS 2009 rankings of world universities.]

Why Does Italian Academia Suck? Henry Farrell (post reproduced in full)

Tyler Cowen tosses in an aside about Italy in a post on changes in economics department rankings.

The big change in the former has been the rise of economics departments around the world in virtually all developed countries (though not Italy). It’s now quite easy to encounter a place you have heard of—yet never really thought of—and find they have a bunch of young faculty with articles in tier one journals.

Diego Gambetta and Gloria Origgi make the argument (previewed in this post last year) that people in Italian academia (and in Italy more generally) may not have much incentive to deviate from an equilibrium in which genial incompetence is rewarded with genial incompetence. Roughly speaking – if everyone promises high quality goods or services to each other, but everyone actually delivers low quality services to each other, this may work out to everyone’s advantage because no-body expects too much of anyone else. They provide a fictional example:

After many years since I left my native town in Italy, one of the universities in Milan invites me to give a series of lectures. They offer me, say, 900 Euros for 15 hours of teaching in two weeks. I accept with enthusiasm, because it gives me an opportunity to visit my family and keep in touch with my old town. Although my previous experience in dealing with Italy tells me that I will probably be paid in no less than six months later, that the 900 Euros will be reduced to 600 due to mysterious taxes not previously announced, I nevertheless accept, because I also know that they will not strictly enforce 15 hours of teaching, but will be satisfied with 10, given that they won’t be able to keep the economic deal they announced. This suits me perfectly because I have extra, personal interests to go to Milan and the less I’m asked to do the better it is for me: I will have more time to spend with my family. And it suits also the university, because they can have an invited professor for a cheap salary, so that we both end up satisfied. Nobody explicitly states that the original deal has not been entirely fulfilled. I know that they know that I won’t respect the deal and that neither will they and we end up in a mutually advantageous equilibrium in which we both have advantages in delivering less than we promised.

And some real world ones.

Italy is among the few if not the only developed country that recruits virtually no foreign researchers in its universities; also, few universities invite foreign lecturers. A reliable source that wishes to remain anonymous, mentioned two cases concerning Law faculties in major Italian cities. In one of them, ample funding meant to be used to invite foreign professors goes systematically unspent, and according to our source, this would be because local L-doers [producers of low quality work] fear that foreign H-doers [producers of high quality work] could make them look bad. In the other Law faculty, they recently reduced the gross salary for a 20 hours teaching stint for an invited professor from 5000 to 1700 Euros, not apparently for lack of funding, but to discourage foreigners from coming and preserve the jobs for their less financially demanding local protégés. The ostracism of H-doers extends to Italians who migrated. Evidence of this is that the Italian government itself, on several occasions, established special funds, which could only be spent on employing Italian academics who worked in foreign universities and wanted to return to their country. No matter how internationally distinguished the chances of expatriates to obtain a chair in the regular competitions were zero.


When Federico Varese (1996) revealed that Stefano Zamagni, a well-established Italian economist, had plagiarised verbatim several pages from Robert Nozick, Varese was criticised by several Italian colleagues who together evoked nine norms or reasons that he would have violated by blowing the whistle. None of these include a justification of plagiarism per se. Varese discusses them in an unpublished article (“Economia d’idee II”). They are worth listing, their range is staggering:
1. There is nothing original, everyone plagiarises, so why bother? [journalist]
2. Whistle blowers are always worse than their targets [sociologist]
3. What is the point of targeting Zamagni? They will never punish him anyway.
4. What is the point of blowing the whistle as you will pay the consequences [family, friends]
5. He is a good “barone”, much better than many others, so why target him? [economist]
6. Zamagni is a member of the left and you should not weaken the left during election times [economist; various friends]
7. Zamagni shows good intellectual tastes as he plagiarises very good authors, so he does not deserve to be attacked [philosopher]
8. Given that many are guilty of plagiarism, targeting one in particular shows that the whistle blower is driven by base motives.
9. In addition, an economist suggested an explanation rather than a justification saying that the real author of the plagiarism was probably a student of Zamagni who wrote the paper for him. This would, funnily enough, imply that Zamagni was innocent of the plagiarism, but still that he signed a paper he did not write, written by someone who also did not write it!

Unfortunately, rationalizations for plagiarism are not a solely Italian problem (although as Gambetta and Origi note, the range and generality of these rationalizations is unusual). From my experiences (as an outside observer) with Italian academia, the theoretical argument and the empirical illustrations all ring true. It’s an excellent paper (and, I would think, a far better assignment for classes on signalling theory than much of the usual stuff).

Categories: European Universities
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