Keeping it in the family: Italian academia

Italian academia is a family business according to new statistical analysis

A previous post noted a report highlighting the problems of nepotism in Italian universities. More detailed information has recently been published including statistical analysis which reinforces this point. The analysis focuses on the frequency of last names in disciplines and institutions and suggests “rampant nepotism” according to the piece:

Unusually high clustering of last names within Italian academic institutions and disciplines indicates widespread nepotism in the country’s schools, according to a new computational analysis.

By comparing the frequency of last names among more than 61,000 professors in medicine, engineering, law, and other fields, University of Chicago researcher Stefano Allesina found the pattern to be incompatible with unbiased, equal opportunity hiring. The analysis, published online in the journal PLoS ONE, refutes the notion that recently publicized cases of academic nepotism in Italy were isolated incidents.

“It’s not a few bad apples, it’s really bad,” said Allesina, PhD, assistant professor of ecology and evolution. “I found that in many disciplines there are much fewer names than you would expect to find at random, indicating a very, very high probability of nepotistic hires.”

In recent years, several scandals have hit Italian academia over the hiring of close family members to prominent faculty positions at public universities. At the University of Bari, nine relatives from three generations of a single family are on the economics faculty, several newspapers reported last year. The chancellor of Sapienza University in Rome was recently investigated by an Italian news program after the hiring of his wife, son, and daughter to medical faculty positions.[See earlier post on this.]

To measure the full magnitude of nepotism in Italian academia, Allesina turned to a public database created by the Italian Ministry of Education. Included was first and last name information for over 61,000 tenured professors from 94 institutions, along with their department and sub-discipline.

Allesina used the pool of last names to run a simple analysis of name frequency. More than 27,000 different last names appeared at least once in the dataset, and Allesina sought to test whether certain names appeared more often than expected in a given field. So he programmed the computer to conduct one million random drawings from the pool of names to see how probable it was to obtain the number of last names that exist in the real-life data.

For example, of the 10,783 faculty members working in medicine, 7,471 distinct last names were found. But in one million random drawings from the full pool of names, Allesina’s program never came up with fewer than 7,471 unique names, indicating an improbable frequency of last names indicative of nepotistic hiring.

The pattern is uneven across disciplines though, with this approach demonstrating the highest likelihood of nepotism in areas including industrial engineering, law, medicine and geography. According to hte study the fields with the distribution of names closest to random – and thus with the lowest likelihood of nepotism – were linguistics, demography, and psychology. Not good news for higher education in Italy.

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Universities ‘must be vigilant’ on campus extremism

Promoting academic freedom and tackling extremism

A new report from UUK is concerned with issues around freedom of speech, academic freedom and extreme views on campus. It’s a good report (but I was on the working group so perhaps biased) and received some straightforward coverage from the BBC News:

The updated guidance from Universities UK sets out the legal duties universities have to protect freedom of speech and also to promote equality and security.

Professor Malcolm Grant, chairman of the review panel, said: “The survey findings confirm how seriously universities take their responsibilities in relation to the safety and security of their staff and students, alongside their obligations to protect and promote free speech and academic freedom.

“Universities are open institutions where academic freedom and freedom of speech are fundamental to their functioning.

“Views expressed within universities, whether by staff, students or visitors, may sometimes appear to be extreme or even offensive. However, unless views can be expressed they cannot also be challenged.

“But all freedoms have limits imposed by law and these considerations are vital to ensure the safety and well being of students, staff and the wider community.

“Universities must continue to ensure that potentially aberrant behaviour is challenged and communicated to the police where appropriate.”

But he added that it was not the job of universities to impede the freedom of speech “through additional censorship, surveillance or invasion of privacy”.

The coverage of the report, which can be downloaded as a PDF, is broad:

The report starts by examining the meaning of academic freedom and freedom of speech: concepts which are often invoked but rarely defined. It then explores the contemporary context in which universities are operating, both in terms of the diversity of current student populations, and the wider national environment. It summarises the relevant law, and describes the Government’s security strategy and other security initiatives and structures. It then reviews the various ways in which universities from across the UK have addressed these challenges and sought to reconcile differing priorities, drawing on an on-line survey conducted by Universities UK of all its members in 2010.

But the Guardian carries a somewhat critical view from Lord Carlile:

The government’s counterterrorism watchdog believes Britain’s universities are reluctant to deal with radicalisation on campus and says a report by vice-chancellors that rejects demands to ban controversial speakers is “weak”.

Lord Carlile, who is in charge of overseeing the government’s counterterrorism strategy, Prevent, urges ministers to develop a “new narrative” for combating extremism, supporting moderate Muslim theologians against al-Qaida. “You have to meet like with like,” he says.

He is scathing about the conclusion reached by Universities UK, representing 133 universities – and says their report contains a “glaring omission”. He told the Guardian: “[There] is a total failure to deal with how to identify and handle individuals who might be suspected of radicalising or being radicalised whilst within the university.”

But this is not a “weak” report and universities are far from complacent on this issue – institutions take their responsibilities in relation to the safety and security of their staff and students extremely seriously, alongside their obligations to protect and promote free speech and academic freedom. We can do with a bit less of the “new narrative” and a bit more support of the good work that is undertaken.