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University of Palermo
by Roberto Paglia

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Graffiti dominates the department of humanities at Palermo University.One Tuesday morning in autumn, standing at a coffee bar off Via Libertà in Palermo, one of this website's editors noticed a large crowd of young people gathered outside the movie theatre next door. Curious, he asked the owner of his favourite coffee and pastry establishment if these were high school students waiting to see a special showing of a film. No, he was informed, these were university students waiting for a lecture to begin. As there are not sufficient lecture halls on the main campus of the University of Palermo, the various colleges and departments rent local movie theatres for lectures, and have been doing so for years. The first reaction of anybody who has lived in Palermo for more than a few years is that somebody at Palermo University is getting a commission (bustarella or "kickback") for sending these students to a friend's theatre; Sicily's Italian population, after all, is not increasing fast enough to overpopulate the universities. But no, there is indeed at least some shortage of larger lecture areas. Investigating further, we learned of crowded campus lecture halls to which students brought their own portable chairs to ensure places to sit, even as the leftist (Communist) dean of the humanities (lettere e filosofia) department provided young anarchists and communists a classroom where they can plan their various street protests against "globalisation" (specifically against the "imperialist" United States, Italy's biggest trading partner). This last inclination struck us as a little unfair: When is the last time you saw a march against Italy in London, New York or Tokyo? And what did Americans, who saved Italy from Fascism and Communism, rebuilding it under the Marshall Plan to become one of the world's most important economic powers (the "Italian Miracle" of economists), do to these hooligans to earn such resentment? The prominent anti-American graffiti on the facade of the department's main building ("americani assassini," meaning "American murderers"), shown here, reflects a minority view among Italians, and the vandals clearly have no right to deface public property, but the radical dean obviously sees no reason to remove the message. Professors' lectures (in various humanistic disciplines) are often overtly anti-American. The "ideology" of hatred is nothing new, but why should the student of languages, literature or history be subjected to this form of indoctrination day after day in a public university?

Other departments, such as engineering and economics, are a bit more serious; their students actually spend more time studying than protesting. A few departments, such as archeology, are indeed exceptional. Of course, a diligent, intelligent student can succeed almost anyplace. Albert Einstein and Enrico Fermi didn't need degrees from highly distinguished universities to be brilliant physicists. In the Middle Ages, when Palermo was the seat of power of Arab emirs and Norman kings, our city was was a centre of learning. As recently as the 1930s, it was here that physicist Emilio Segré, a colleague of Einstein and Fermi who won a Nobel prize in 1959, discovered the first synthetic element, technetium (Tc), before leaving for greener pastures abroad. And, of course, Archimedes, the greatest scientific genius of the classical age, studied and worked in Sicily, where he was born.

The University of Palermo still has some dedicated and gifted professors, but the main campus (in Viale delle Scienze), with certain large buildings still incomplete after a decade of interrupted construction due to politics and bureaucracy, and others in a poor state of repair, hardly seems an environment conducive to serious study. Many instructors keep fickle office hours, and are rarely available for consultations with students, and this phenomenon has spawned the conditions for establishment of a profitable industry in expensive remedial exam preparation courses sponsored privately (those of CEPU and other firms are best known).

But what's university life really like at Palermo? The campus and public libraries have an acute shortage of space and resources, making the scholarly quest for information (research) difficult, and library staffs are indifferent. (The directress of the "national" library in Palermo's Corso Vittorio Emanuele got irate with me when I suggested there might be a problem in that regard.) Few computers are available to students, and professors are often tenured based on their politics. Some professors are members of the conservative Catholic organisation Opus Dei, and appointed on that basis to faculties controlled by like minded people. Being a Communist helps if one seeks appointment to a department controlled by leftists. Tenure based entirely on merit is a rarity anywhere, but this looks like blatant discrimination. The appointment situation at the University of Catania and Messina University is not much different, but at least the learning environment in those older institutions (Palermo University was founded only in the nineteenth century) is more tranquil.

Over in Catania you may still need a "recommendation" from a professor's friend to get a high exam grade or a scholarship (such as those which pay for study abroad), just as you would at Palermo, but this is an environment more Palermitan than Sicilian. For much of the faculty, unprofessional behaviour seems to be the order of the day, whether it's excessive absenteeism, inaccurate (unfair) grading or a professor's inappropriate personal relationships with students. Students are understandably reluctant to complain about some of these conditions for fear of being targeted in retaliation by an "offended" professor. This could mean a deflated exam grade or categorical rejection of the undergraduate research paper deceptively referred to as a "thesis."

In reality, the problems at the University of Palermo are merely a reflection of what exists elsewhere in Sicilian schools. In secondary (high) schools, for example, it is not unusual for leftist teachers to penalise (via deflated grades) bright students who do not share their political philosophies. Politics aside, Heaven help the bright young student raised in the United States or another English-speaking country (and therefore fluent in English) who has to study under a teacher resentful of anybody who speaks Shakespeare's tongue better than she does! Envy and teaching are a dangerous combination.

It's not only leftists who pose an intellectual challenge. Some right-wingers entertain ideas which could be best characterised as neo-Fascist, while others are zealously Roman Catholic and "anti" anything else: Protestant, Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim... This obviously influences their views of topics such as history and philosophy, which are sometimes taught from a narrow-minded or even revisionist perspective. Don't expect Socrates, al Edrisi, Frederick II, Luther or even Erasmus.

Drawing attention to the anti-American (or anti-British) ideas of a handful of local vandals and public employees is not the main point of this article. But having lived in the United States, this author finds it ironic that Italo-American organisations take strong positions against anti-Italian activities, while nobody bothers to consider the consequences of vocal anti-Americanism here in Italy. Admittedly, the negativity is sometimes quite subtle, taking the form of uninvited comments about American foreign policy, but it is often intentionally offensive. For example, Italian public institutions usually do not recognise American university degrees even though it is the dream of many young Italians to live, study and work in the United States or Canada. Despite the achievements of American-educated people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, as well as the folks at NASA, Americans in Italy are often subjected to talk of American education being "inferior" to what exists in Italy. (Maybe it's just envy; it seems silly to take issue with the cutting-edge scientific, medical and technological developments that occur in the United States each year, and comparing the business programmes at Milan's Bocconi to those at Harvard hardly seems a matter worthy of serious debate, whatever one believes.) To many Sicilian graduates, who must confront the possibility of unemployment in Sicily or low-paid "underemployment" in northern Italy, America is still the Land of Opportunity, with the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada high on the list of countries where young Palermitans want to live. The facts of this article are easily confirmed; a foreigner who spends a semester or two at the University of Palermo can make a personal comparison and decide for herself.

Hoping to escape a bizarre environment where talent and hard work are often punished, a growing number of Italian students seek graduate (and undergraduate) study abroad. It's clear that the xenophobic attitudes of a few professors and classmates do not discourage the most promising scholars from leaving Palermo. The lack of professionalism resulting from training in undistinguished learnng environments is a serious matter, whether it's a question of an English teacher who cannot speak English or a surgeon at Palermo's Ospedale Civico who doesn't use the most modern surgical techniques. In truth, many problems in Sicilian society probably result from a poor university environment in which being "recommended" by a local politician or bureaucrat is the best way to get a professorship. Recently, an Italian scientist living in the United States won the Nobel prize, and took the opportunity to launch an attack (in interviews in the Italian media) on the system that makes serious experimental research impossible in Italy. He expressed the opinion that Italy's "brain drain" would continue until clientelism and corruption were eliminated or at least minimised. One would like to say that study conditions at the University of Palermo are improving, but that doesn't seem to be the case. Each year, budget cuts threaten basic student services, which are already few, and a solution to the lecture hall shortage is nowhere in sight. There are some two thousand teaching personnel (mostly assistants or part-time lecturers) for around forty thousand students. Anybody who endures four years of study at the University of Palermo deserves more than a diploma; the worthy graduate merits a medal for courage!

About the Author: Palermo native Roberto Paglia has written about social issues and education for several Italian, British and American newspapers. This is his first contribution to Best of Sicily. (He studied for a year at the University of Palermo before transferring to Bologna.)

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© 2003 Roberto Paglia