Magazine article Psychology Today

Strangers Need Not Apply

Magazine article Psychology Today

Strangers Need Not Apply

Article excerpt


Nepotism is a staple of the animal kingdom, but some of us take it to the extreme. Dario Maestripieri on the culture of cronyism that drove him out of Italy.

RACCOMANDAZIONE is the Italian word for "recommendation." In Italy this is not advice or support; it's a request or, truthfully, an orden Make sure Mr. Xgets thejob. Typically Mr. X is a family member or a protégé of the person doingthe recommending. The raccomandazione is the quintessential means for nepotistic influence in Italian public life.

Around the world, people are recommended for job positions and career advancements. Usually, a letter of recommendation provides an evaluation of a candidate's qualifications and is written by, say, a former employer. In Italy, the raccomandazione is not a requirement of the job-application process; it endorses a candidate but doesn't necessarily describe her qualifications. It's usually made with a phone call. Candidates who don't have a raccomandazione don't stand a chance. For those who have one, the likelihood of success depends not on the recommendation itself but on the power and influence of the person who makes the call. This setup is not meant to facilitate the applicant-review process but rather to rig the process and guarantee the hiring of a particular candidate, regardless of merit.

Nepotism is a universal phenomenon. When it comes to the Italians, family, of course, comes first. Who would favor nonkin over kin? The availability of resources is what makes us more or less nepotistic. When everyone has all the food, water, or money they need or want, they can afford to be generous and forgo discrimination between kin and nonkin. When belt-tightening becomes necessary, however, family ties and networks rise in importance.

Let's examine Italian academia. The baroni (university professors) admit their children, and others adopted into the family network, directly into their departments or recommend them to other baroni. The baroni also admit students with raccomandazioni from politicians, businesspeople, or friends and neighbors. Applicants who do not fall into these categories are rejected. My PhD. adviser turned down students without the required pedigree even if they were academically outstanding and he had empty slots. He had to keep the slots vacant because his phone could ring at any moment with a request to take a student he couldn't refuse.

The year I applied to the biology doctorate program at the University of Rome, there were eight open slots, and the eight winners had been previously agreed upon. I wasn't one of them. But a couple of weeks before the concorsi (competition and review), the National Research Council offered funding to support two additional fellowships. The baroni did not have time to negotiate these positions, so two outsiders- a friend and I-were admitted. We squeezed in through a crack in the system. Still, we couldn't find a professor willing to serve as adviser.

Eventually, after some arm-twisting, my friend and I persuaded an adviser to take us on. Three years later, however, after I finished my Ph.D., it was made abundantly clear that those who had entered academia without raccomandazioni could not expect to go further. After doors were shut in my face one too many times, I moved to this country.

Scandals involving rigged concorsi have received plenty of media attention in Italy; countless newspaper and magazine articles have been written on the subject Several years ago, the weekly news magazine L'Espresso published a cover article entitled "The Baroni's Mafia" and cited some of the best-known scandals of academic nepotism in Italy.

The inner workings of the academic mafia were revealed when university phones were wiretapped by the police. In 2005, Paolo Rizzon, a professor at the University of Bari, was recorded discussing strategies for manipulating concorsi across Italy. In one conversation, he negotiated the composition of a favorable search committee for his son, who had applied for a faculty position; then he negotiated the topic of the examinationessay his son would write. …

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