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Is Italian higher education a “family business”?

Research by Stefano Allesina, an assistant professor at the Computation Institute, a joint entity of the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory, has detected signs of nepotistic hiring practices for academic positions in Italy. Using simple methods of computational mathematics, the Italian-born researcher compared the frequency of last names amongst tenured professors at 94 Italian universities with the frequency of these names in the population at large. In doing so, he found that in some disciplines and regions a concentration of certain names was far too high to be explained by sheer chance. He comes to the conclusion that hiring for academic posts in Italy cannot - in many instances - have been the result of unbiased and merit-based selection. “It’s not a few bad apples, it’s really bad”, Allesina is quoted on the Computation Institute’s website. “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.”

Allesina’s findings indicate that unusual hiring practices are not equally distributed across academia in Italy. A suspiciously high incidence of particular names occurs much more often in industrial engineering, law and medicine than in linguistics, demography and psychology. There is also a distinct regional pattern: the further south you move in the country, the higher the concentration.  Allesina is also convinced that unfair hiring practices are at the root of pervasive academic brain drain out of the country.

According to the website, Allesina’s finding is in line with (unspecified) media reports about the employment of whole families by certain departments and universities. Thus, nine members of a single family were last year found to be in leading academic positions at the Economics Faculty of the University of Bari.  In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Allesina indicated he believed the problem was neither limited to Italy nor to academia. 

Allesina’s paper, "Measuring nepotism through shared last names: the case of Italian academia," appeared in the online journal PLoS ONE on August 3, 2011.

University of Chicago, Computation Institute