When Academia is a Family Business

nepotismThere’s something quaint and charming about a family business, where multiple generations work shoulder to shoulder to keep an enterprise afloat. But when the business in question is academia and the salaries are paid by tax dollars, suddenly keeping it in the family carries the stink of nepotism. In the public universities of Italy, it’s no secret that nepotismo is the rule, not the exception. Despite repeated legislative efforts to reform university hiring, scandals such as the one at University of Bari’s economics department – where a father, two sons, and five grandchildren all work together – remain a perennial problem in Italy.

Stefano Allesina, an assistant professor of evolution & ecology at the University of Chicago, witnessed the damaging effects of these unfair hiring practices as a student in Italy. While pursuing his PhD, Allesina’s advisor told him not to waste his most productive years trying to get a job in Italy – advice he followed in emigrating abroad to the United States. Many of his Italian peers followed similar paths, while those who stayed behind languished in limbo waiting for scarce tenure track positions to open. Frustrated with the broken Italian system, Allesina decided to apply his talents for creating computational models in ecology to measuring the full scope of nepotism in the university system of his home country.

“In Italy, there is an enormous brain drain,” Allesina said. “Italy is losing so many graduate students to other countries, it’s unbelievable. It’s because the hiring is extremely slow, complicated, and not really based on quality…and I think these kind of hiring practices contribute a lot to this brain drain and the fact that Italian universities are not ranked very high internationally.”

In a study published yesterday in PLoS ONE, Allesina used a public directory containing the last names and fields of study for over 61,000 professors to look for systemic signs of nepotistic hiring. With a simple computer model, Allesina detected unusual clustering of last names within disciplines such as law and medicine, far from the random distribution expected with unbiased hiring.

“It’s not a few bad apples, it’s really bad,” Allesina said. “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.”

The original model worked like a random lottery, repeated one million times. Over the entire dataset, more than 27,000 different last names were represented. For each discipline, Allesina tested whether certain names appeared more than expected at random. So for medicine, where there are 10,783 faculty members with 7,471 different last names, Allesina programmed his computer to test how likely it was to randomly draw only 7,471 names (or fewer) from the total name pool in 10,783 tries.

“It’s very basic, anybody with a laptop can do this analysis,” Allesina said. “I wanted to keep it as coarse-grained and simple as possible. Because then it’s more powerful – if this works, anything else will work. Even this very simplistic analysis can find that some disciplines are above and beyond what one could expect.”

Under this model, the worst offenders were law, medicine, and industrial engineering, all of which showed only a 1-in-1,000 chance of having so few last names by random. On the other end, psychology, demography, and linguistics  each contained a last name distribution close to random, suggesting that hiring was more fair in these fields. Another analysis, which mapped the likelihood of two faculty members in the same field sharing a name by geographic region, found that indicators of nepotism were stronger in the south – a result that would surprise few Italians, Allesina said.

“For an Italian, this is not that surprising,” Allesina said. “It is a narrative of two separate countries, where in the public sector we have more problems in the south.”

A much trickier task than measuring the breadth of nepotism in Italy is finding an effective solution for ending the unfair hiring practices.

Many Italian reform efforts have failed, Allesina said, some because of faculty and student opposition to a more “American” university system, and some because of toothless penalties and lack of enforcement. A new law passed in late 2010 promised to take hiring and funding decisions out of the hands of university personnel and into the hands of independent panels. Allesina is skeptical that old habits can be regulated away so easily, when doing favors for family members is an Italian tradition.

“The good and bad of Italy is the family,” he said. “On one hand it saves you from the complete collapse of the country, but it also prevents growth in Italy. It works well in times of plenty, but in times where there’s not plenty, this really becomes a weight on the shoulders of young people and they have to emigrate. It’s really sad, and I feel very sorry for people.”

But should the current reforms stick, he says that his model could be re-deployed in ten years time to see if the reforms were actually effective in reducing nepotism in the university. The model could also be aimed wherever unfair hiring is taking place in the public sector and employee data is available, be it Italy, the United States, or Chicago.

“I think this problem with the university is really the tip of the iceberg, a place where it’s really apparent what the problems of Italy are,” Allesina said. “But I wanted to keep the methods easy enough so that a researcher can do it not just for universities, but for other places in the public sector. The government has all these numbers and names, if they wanted to do it they could.”

[See more coverage of Allesina’s paper at the Chicago Tribune and Science Careers]


Allesina, S. (2011). Measuring Nepotism through Shared Last Names: The Case of Italian Academia PLoS ONE, 6 (8) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0021160

About Rob Mitchum (518 Articles)
Rob Mitchum is communications manager at the Computation Institute, a joint initiative between The University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory.
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