Barone (Italy)

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Location: Italy
Italy map.png
Author: Simona Guerra
Affiliation: University of Leicester

Original text by Simona Guerra

As a general term, barone has come to indicate people who wield power and wealth in contemporary Italy. In particular, the term is used with reference to ‘university barons’ (barone universitario), who use their authority within their profession to exercise undue power.

The term barone (in English ‘baron’) originally referred to the highest feudal degree in the thirteenth century Italian feudal system. According to the Treccani Encyclopedia, the word ‘barone’, from the Latin, baro-baronis, may also refer to a cheater, villain, or rascal. Don Abbondio shouts this insult in Alessandro Manzoni’s novel, The Betrothed (Manzoni 1972 [1842])[1]. In the Italian university system the term is associated negatively with the practice of nepotism, although it may also be used more generally to describe senior academics working at the highest levels of scientific research. When positively connoted, the term barone refers to full chair professors, who have built a network structure in their field of excellence in which colleagues include a number of their former researchers engaged in a career in academia. In this instance ‘barone’ refers to knowledge and experience, but it can also be used negatively to refer to a system of undue personal influence and cooptation (Tagliavini 2003)[2].

The term ‘barone’ is widely used in the national press and the media, and several major newspapers and magazines have produced special editions dedicated to ‘baroni universitari’. Magazines and newspapers, such as L’Espresso, Il Corriere della Sera and Il Fatto Quotidiano, have investigated the impact and extent of the phenomenon, comparing it in style to practices employed by the mafia. Other publications and debates in the national media have been inspired by the personal accounts and experiences of scholars.

When considering the Italian system of Higher Education, a comparison is often made with practices in the Spanish Higher Education system as it is considered to be the most closely related to the Italian case, although the levels of localism in appointments in Spanish Universities seem to be lower (Francalacci 2014)[3]. A study conducted between 2000-2010 looked at family connections in the Italian university system. It found evidence of the recruitment or promotion of a close relative (defined as ‘son or daughter, spouse, nephew or niece, son or daughter in law’) in 18 out of the 57 universities it surveyed across Italy. This practice could be detected in six of the 10 largest universities in the country (Bari, Bologna, Florence, Milan, Naples and Palermo) (Durante et al 2011)[4]. In 2008, at the Faculty of Medicine in Palermo, 58 of the 384 professors had at least one close relative in the same faculty, while in 2010, at the medical faculty in Messina, 100 out of 531 instances of nepotism were found, and in the Faculty of Law, 27 out of 75 members of the faculty were found to have appointed a close family member. A prosecutorial inquiry in Bari was reportedly known as the ‘Do ut des’ trial (‘I give, so that you will give’), which seems to accurately describe the nature of relationships within the local network.

Description ‘’Narcisismo e cecitá dei baroni uccidono l’accademia italiana’ (The Narcissim and blindness of Barons is killing Italian academia), Corriere della Sera, 28 January 2015.’

The impact of ‘familism’ in universities also has a negative effect in terms of the quality of research within departments. Studies show that the higher the levels of familism, the poorer the research performance. Further, an examination of poor civic values, along with a low sense of civic responsibility, shows that the decentralisation implemented after the 1998 educational reforms instigated by Minister Luigi Berlinguer had a negative impact, resulting in an even higher incidence of nepotism (Durante et al. 2011: 23)[5]. The Berlinguer Act implemented by the Ministry of Education, University and Research (MIUR)[6], enabled universities to appoint staff at a local level and replaced the previous system in which the national committee (concorso nazionale) had decided the selection of candidates. The reform was well intentioned in that it sought to speed up the hiring process and diminish bureaucratic selection processes (Verzillo 2013)[7], but had unexpected consequences.

Empirical results reveal a number of remaining shortcomings. Firstly, it shows that the phenomenon of nepotism (Durante et al. 2011)[8] might actually be hugely under-estimated. When investigators attempted to trace relationships they based their searches on the assumption of a shared surname, which was not always the case. It was also supposed that large universities would be easier to investigate. Analyses at the administrative level of small universities, and at the periphery, with the opening of new universities, could have provided additional evidence. Secondly, it was found that decentralisation did not improve the low competitiveness rates. In Italy salaries and teaching is controlled at national level (by MIUR)[9], which results in a very low mobility rate of professors, and as was observed, ‘no penalties were associated with collusive behaviours’ (Verzillo 2013: 20)[10].

Nicola Gardini’s book, I Baroni (‘Barons’, 2009) provides a snapshot of Italian academic life from the perspective of a member of staff, hired locally, but educated overseas. The system he describes has elements of both an old type of clientelism, which mixes a personal and affective nature, and new clientelism, which brings tangible benefits and provides the opportunity of an academic career to staff members (Caciagli 2006)[11]. He suggests that in order to distinguish between the two main types of baroni, it is necessary to divide them into two categories: ‘strong’ Barons and ‘weak’ Barons. He defines ‘weak’ Barons as professors, associates and researchers who are not involved in final decision processes and are in place ‘just to obey … as a consequence, they become very important [for baronia]. Without their cooperation, ‘strong’ Barons would not exist, as fathers would not exist without their sons and daughters.’ Weak Barons support each other and subscribe to the same logic, which sees them defend the status quo, reasoning that to abolish the system might damage their own future prospects (Gardini 2009: 201-202)[12]. This system is called ‘baronia’, and the author further postulates that ‘baronia is a language.’ Baronia describes an informal power of relations that maintains relationships of trust between individuals in unequal positions, based on an exchange of benefits. Baronia, as a clientelistic relationship, is based on particularistic interests, and within this system ‘in Italian academia’, Gardini warns, ‘purity does not exist’ (2009: 202).

As is typical of systems of corruption, the dynamic flows ‘from the top to the bottom’, spreading and choosing the network on the basis of pragmatism, to then further move upwards and create a system of ‘complicity of interests’ (Della Porta 1997: 35-36)[13]. The further the system spreads, the lower the costs and the more probable network opportunities become. Italian Professor Francesco Gazzoni’s volume ‘Cooptazioni: Ieri e oggi’ (‘Co-optations: Yesterday and today’) describes this network of interests as a mafia system of organisation. Gazzoni suggests that co-optation does not necessarily lead to damage, although co-opting relates to conservatism and perpetuates the professors’ paradigm. One of the main weaknesses of this system is that it is unable to fully renew itself. Another shortcoming of the baronia system, which he highlights, is that the selection criteria are generally independent of the profile and requirements of the candidates and the curriculum. He compares the situation to the appointment of Incitatus, Caligula’s favourite horse, to the position of consul in the Roman Empire.

Further reforms, named after the Minister of Education, Mariastella Gelmini, and implemented in 2010 introduced, among others, a system of national scientific abilitazione (‘National Scientific Qualification’, MIUR ud) – which called for the submission of a CV, publications, and the research profile of candidates applying for the position of Associate or Full Chair in the Italian Academia. It was contested. In 2012, the first round of abilitazioni sparked a wave of protests. Approximately 60,000 candidates submitted their applications; of which almost 24,000 attained the abilitazione as Associate and/ or Full Chair. But it is estimated that about 8,000 appeals were submitted to TAR (Tribunale Amministrativo Regionale, the Administrative Court, which deals with proceedings in which individuals consider themselves wronged. A further review of policy by the Ministry was requested. In November 2015, while this entry was being written, a new scandal came to light (ROARS 2015)[14]. It was alleged that a baron asked university staff members to recruit colleagues as reviewers for the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS). This body, founded in 1990 has been responsible for providing the rankings of higher education institutions globally since 2004. It was apparent that the colleagues (who would be fully aware of the importance of rankings for universities) would unfairly review the university in a positive light.

Baronia, as a system, is self-sustaining, but it is not an all-encompassing system in which knowing and working with strong barons can ensure the survival of the system itself. The system is the main reason why many researchers leave Italy, a country that in 2015 was ranked 61st out of 167 countries in the Corruption Perception Index published by Transparency International. Unsurprisingly, examples of incidents provided by Nicola Gardini (2009)[15] included intentionally being given the wrong timetable and venue for his teaching, as well as observations of low mobility and competitiveness (Verzillo 2013)[16]. This practice continues to support the survival of this cultural phenomenon, which as Caciagli noted, has its roots in a code of ‘deference, which makes sense in a social context and from collective experiences’ (Caciagli 2006)[17]. One of the main goals of the Gelmini reform was the renewal of the Italian academic system in the hope that it would produce honest, enthusiastic and brilliant scholars and researchers who would have sufficient confidence to oppose the baronia system in the future.


  1. Manzoni, A. 1972. [1942]. The Betrothed. London: Penguin.
  2. Tagliavini, G. 2003. Diventare Professor Universitario. Indicazioni utili per l’avvio di una carrier in università, Milano: Hoepli.
  3. Francalacci, P. 2014. ‘Sul sistema di recultamento spagnolo’, ROARS, Return On Academic Research, 17 May,
  4. Durante, R., Labartino, G. and Perotti, R. 2011. ‘Academic Dynasties: Decentralization and Familism in Italian Academia’,
  5. Durante, R., Labartino, G. and Perotti, R. 2011. ‘Academic Dynasties: Decentralization and Familism in Italian Academia’,
  6. MIUR (ud) ‘Abilitazione Scientifica Nazionale’,
  7. Verzillo, S. 2013 ‘Decentralized academic selection mechanisms in Italy: opportunity or parochialism?’,
  8. Durante, R., Labartino, G. and Perotti, R. 2011. ‘Academic Dynasties: Decentralization and Familism in Italian Academia’,
  9. MIUR (ud) ‘Abilitazione Scientifica Nazionale’,
  10. Verzillo, S. 2013 ‘Decentralized academic selection mechanisms in Italy: opportunity or parochialism?’,
  11. Caciagli, M. 2006. ‘Italy’ in J. Kawata (ed.) Comparing Political Corruption and Clientelism. Aldershot: Ashgate Corruption Perception Index. 2015.
  12. Gardini, N. 2009. I Baroni. Come e perché sono fuggito dall’università italiana. Milano: Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Editore.
  13. Della Porta, D. 1997. ‘The vicious circle of corruption in Italy’, in D. Della Porta and Y. Mény (eds.) Democracy and Corruption in Europe. London: Pinter, pp. 35-49.
  14. ROARS 2011. ‘In Italia qualcuno sta truccando i ranking QS? E che succeed se ti beccano? ’, Return On Academic Research, 22 November,
  15. Gardini, N. 2009. I Baroni. Come e perché sono fuggito dall’università italiana. Milano: Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Editore.
  16. Verzillo, S. 2013 ‘Decentralized academic selection mechanisms in Italy: opportunity or parochialism?’,
  17. Caciagli, M. 2006. ‘Italy’ in J. Kawata (ed.) Comparing Political Corruption and Clientelism. Aldershot: Ashgate Corruption Perception Index. 2015.