As an Italian PhD student abroad, I agree with your Editorial 'Situations vacant' (Nature 456, 142; 2008), in which you discuss issues influencing the hiring of academic staff in Italy. The day after this was published, details of yet another scandal in the Italian academic world appeared in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera under the headline 'A single candidate for a research position: the professor's son' (http://tinyurl.com/5nsd2c).
The emergence of a single candidate in the concorso (national competition) for a position at the University of Messina in Sicily is surprising in itself: such concorsi are rarely held, owing to the limited funding available to Italian universities. Even more disturbing is the fact that two other candidates stood down unexpectedly at the last minute, ensuring the victory of the one who remained.
The successful candidate's father had retired from the same faculty, so his alleged reply in an interview by the newspaper's reporter to a question regarding the candidate's identity was perplexing: “Ask the university. How can I know him? This is a national competition!” He apparently added, “If my son is the only candidate, it is because there were no other people that fulfil the requirements”, and continued with the disturbing reflection that professors' sons are more suitable for such positions because their home environment has given them the right mentality.
This kind of event is all too familiar in Italy. An example of an 'academic dynasty' was reported last year in the newspaper La Repubblica (http://tinyurl.com/5lqwul). But the words of a professor who reportedly doesn't recognize the anomaly of the system, while claiming superiority for his offspring, add another distasteful component.
Considering this situation, I would like to conclude by changing your Editorial's statement into a question. Should Italy's universities be free to hire whom they want?
About this article
Readers are welcome to comment at http://tinyurl.com/5lg42f.