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From the “Funk of Disappointment” to the F[l]unking of the Academy

From the “Funk of Disappointment” to the F[l]unking of the Academy

Anthony Julian Tamburri (December 31, 2007)

In his NY Times article on the "Funk of Disappointment," Ian Fisher alludes to a most important phenomenon ("brain drain") that, here in the United States, has, and will continue to have, a significant impact on the academic world. Below, I point to just one of the many issues that surround Italy's "brain drain."


A friend recently asked me why I had not reacted to the by now infamous (tongue set firmly in cheek) NY Times article by Ian Fisher; my response was that if I had responded to Fischer’s piece I would have also FELT compelled to respond to Zucconi’s piece that appeared a day or so later in la Repubblica.

Zucconi, for those of you who did not see his article, basically impugned that the US was in no better shape than Italy. Indeed, there is much to be said about what Zucconi retorts: to be sure, the US is going through some trying times with a war quasi out of control; deficits are surely out of control; the dollar could not be weaker, which, among many things, has helped sky rocket the price of oil; as well as other things he listed. Nevertheless, I would be at a loss to place on equal levels the woes of Italy with those of the United States, especially considering what was listed in Fisher’s NY Times article. Overall, Judith Harris’s blog here on i-Italy has, for all practical purposes, hit the nail on the head. Her decades-long residence has clearly sharpened her sensitivity to the Italian “tenore di vita,” which has afforded her the keen insight to be able to engage in a level-headed comparison between these two different but intriguing countries.
In going tit for tat with what’s wrong not only in Italy but also in the US, what Zucconi did not mention was that—as Fisher underscored—“[m]any of the brightest, like the poorest a century ago, leave Italy.” This not-so-new but only recent, openly discussed phenomenon of “brain drain,” which Italy seems to have tried to half-heartedly counter at one point, is such an ironic mimicry of what occurred with “the poorest a century ago,” as Fisher so rightfully stated (For instance, a northern Italian university offered two of my former Ph.D. students a three-year contract, with no guarantee of a possibility of renewal, for them to return to Italy and, consequently, not vie for both long-term and tenure-track positions they eventually earned and currently hold here in the United States). But, it is not only this above-mentioned “brain drain” of the young professionals who are going abroad that threatens intellectual development on a national level; one must also, I would contend, look to the stunting of professional growth from within.
In fact, within academia in Italy, promotion seems to be, for all practical purposes, based much less on meritocracy and much more on “raccomandazione,” which does not translate cleanly into the English word, “recommendation”—the former referring more to “connections,” the latter referencing support for “professional prowess.” In the United States, as is usually the case, one readily enters academia at the assistant professorial level with clear expectations of promotion through the ranks within a certain time frame (usually six years), provided s/he responds to the requirements of the system. This is not the case in Italy, where one may readily remain at the entry level, albeit with some semblance of what we call tenure, with little hope of promotion in rank within a timely fashion. The difference in performance is that in the US one may steadily move forward to the associate professor level with a publication record of a half dozen articles and one authored book. In Italy, conversely, one remains at the entry-level rank while moving forward with a production record of most likely a dozen or so articles and one or two authored books; and the prospects of promotion remain tied to those inexplicable forces under the rubric of “raccomandazione.”
Now, dear reader, don’t get me wrong! Connections are also in vogue here in the US: “my teaching assistant,” “my child,” “my cousin,” etc. are phrases I have heard in the various administrative positions I have held over the past seventeen years. But, while there may be a goodly number of individuals who also engage in such activity in the US with some success, we do have a system of checks and balances that, to an Italian mind-set, would seem not only foreign (pun intended) but, I would suspect, inimical. I have in mind the basic hiring process that any federally funded college/university must follow. The filling in of grids, the tallying of the ethnic/racial/gender composition of the pool of applicants, the submission of such information to a higher power within the university—i.e., the affirmative action officer—are all part of an even greater procedure that attempts to keep the system honest, so to speak, as best it can. In Italy, there is the “concorso” (the competition), which is often on a national level. It consists of a written exam, an oral exam, if the committee approves of the written part, after which the committee decides on the so-called winner. With specific regard to the university, the “concorso” is in effect at a local level (Caveat lector: This is the situation as I write; a reform is now being implemented, which was passed by the Berlusconi government and should transform the “concorso” into a national competition), and the regulations differ according to the level in play, as follows: for the position of “ricercatore” (lit., researcher, equal to our assistant professor level), one must pass written and oral exams; for the position of “associato” (equal to our associate professor level), there is first an evaluation of one’s credentials followed by a “lesson” conducted in front of the examining committee, for which the candidate has a twenty-four hour notice of the lesson’s subject matter s/he is to present; for the position of “ordinario” (equal to our full professor level) there is only an evaluation of one’s credentials. It is in within this process that the Italian concept and/or practice of the “raccomandazione” has much more valence than our own “recommendation,” trumping to some extent the desired impersonality of meritocracy.
Potentially there are two losers in all of this, the Italian university system and the job candidate. However, there are also two potential winners, the Italian job candidate and the non-Italian university system that accepts him/her.

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Brain Drain and the F[l]unking of the Academy

I agree with Tamburri and here is just a famous example: the 1984 Physics Nobel Carlo Rubbia, before winning the prestigious award, had applied several times for an academic position in Italy but ... always someone else had a strong "raccomandazione". In fact, when Rubbia won the Nobel, he was working abroad. Stefano Vaccara

Noble prize vs teaching

Carlo Rubbia was a Noble Prize winner – but could he teach? Is that not what professors are, at least in part, hired for? As I under stand Tamburri’s post, a condition of employment in Italian Universities is the ability to teach. So far as I can determine teaching ability is not a criterion for employment in American universities. Pedigree (i.e. university issuing Ph.D), publications, gender, race, political correctness (e.g. not a communist), etc.; the list of, in Tamburri’s words, “girds to fill in” does not include teaching ability. I understand that scientific researchers in the Noble league would not be doing much teaching and are hired to do research and provide the university with prestige and grant money. But, more generally, especially in the humanities and social sciences, that is not the case. A professor is a teacher! To my mind the American university system has ignored that. And, the consequence is not “brain drain” rather “brain atrophy.” We are not developing many of our best and brightest youths because the universities do not hire teachers. In this respect, if I understand Prof. Tamburri, Italy is far ahead of us. How many teachers (really effective mind motivating, mind developing teachers) equal one Nobel Prize winner? Tom Verso

university hiring process

Perhaps it is because I am not an academician and I read Professor Tamburri’s comparative analysis of the American and Italian university “hiring process” from the point of view of a former very highly disgruntled (“I want my money back”) college student, and a certified/experienced secondary public school teacher – but, I am really (not rhetorically) confused about some of the things he wrote about the relative virtues of the respective “hiring processes.”

Specifically: The American university “basic hiring process” involves considerations of ethnicity, race and gender. At the risk of being soooooo politically incorrect, none of these three characteristics of the candidate are measures of a scholar/teacher’s intelligence, knowledge or skill.

On the other hand, in Italy the hiring process considers such things as “competitive” “written exams” “oral exams” and most interesting - of all the irrelevant things to consider when hiring a teacher – a teaching exam!! (“a lesson conducted in front of the examining committee, for which the candidate has a twenty-four hour notice of the lesson’s subject matter s/he is to present”).

In short, the Italian candidate must demonstrate knowledge of their field of expertise (written exam), ability to spontaneously convey that knowledge to a committee of professionals (oral exam) and demonstrate (if you can believe it) the ability to teach that knowledge. And, the ethnicity, race and gender are not considered relevant.

Apart from American political correctness (i.e. affirmative action – no value judgment implied), I don’t understand why the Italian system is considered less desirable when considered not from a career path and/or affirmative action point of view – rather, from a purely intellectual, scholarly and pedagogical point of view.

Tom Verso


Tom, you make some good points on issues that could use expansion. Given the desire to be concise, we sometimes do not make the connections, as I have clearly not done here. My reference to considerations of ethnicity, race, and gender within the US hiring process is to be read as one of a number of ways to confront, for lack of a better term, cronyism (i.e., in Italian "baronaggio"), among other things. Now, I do not want to imply that cronyism and its off-shoots do not exist in the US. Also, I should add, the examination of a candidate's publishing record, his/her teaching evaluations, his/her letters of recommendations, and, later on if the candidate makes the short list (10 or so to be reduced to 3 or so), personal interviews are all part and parcel of the hiring process here in the US. Let me make my point further by analogy and example. If, for instance, in Italy (given especially the historical north/.south "conflict") there were at least the requirement of geographical consideration (namely, a certain percentage of applicants should be from outside the local area of the hiring university, then, from just this point of view, one would have wider geographical distribution and, I would submit, greater cultural integration within the local universities. Hopefully, the “northern” students would be exposed to “southern” professors in places like Milano, Torino, Brescia, Venezia, etc., and vice versa in places such as Roma, Napoli, Lecce, Catania, etc. This would be, to some degree, an attempt at both a literal and metaphorical de-provincialization of the cultural brokerage centers (an ugly phrase in English, I know) in Italy. Cheers and thanks for the response! Alla riscossa, Anthony

Southern Question

Thank you for the clarification. I understand the problems of conciseness. I am grateful for your reference to the “historic north/south ‘conflict’.” I am very interested in the so called “Southern Question” and I have not come across any references to it being played out in the university system. I posted a comment to Ms. Harris’ article on the New York Times’ thing indicating that I thought I saw tacit Southern Question ideas in the terminology use by one of her sources. Best Tom

Things we cannot forget...

Tom, I suspect there are a few things "Italy" should not forget. One, for sure, is the north/south conflict. Another, I would add, is immigration; and in this regard I would especially remind those who have been living here in the States — for many yes, especially — and yet, as I put it in an essay not too long ago, "live Italy." This last concept is for another time. Cheers, Anthony