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Nepotism is a staple of the animal kingdom, but some of us take it to the extreme. Dario Maestripieri on the culture of cronyism that drove him out of Italy.

By Dario Maestripieri, published on May 1, 2012 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Raccomandazione is the Italian word for "recommendation." In Italy this is not advice or support; it's a request or, truthfully, an order: Make sure Mr. X gets the job. Typically Mr. X is a family member or a protégé of the person doing the recommending. The raccomandazione is the quintessential means for nepotistic influence in Italian public life.

Around the world, people are recommended for job positions and career advancements. Usually, a letter of recommendation provides an evaluation of a candidate's qualifications and is written by, say, a former employer. In Italy, the raccomandazione is not a requirement of the job-application process; it endorses a candidate but doesn't necessarily describe her qualifications. It's usually made with a phone call. Candidates who don't have a raccomandazione don't stand a chance. For those who have one, the likelihood of success depends not on the recommendation itself but on the power and influence of the person who makes the call. This setup is not meant to facilitate the applicant-review process but rather to rig the process and guarantee the hiring of a particular candidate, regardless of merit.

Nepotism is a universal phenomenon. When it comes to the Italians, family, of course, comes first. Who would favor nonkin over kin? The availability of resources is what makes us more or less nepotistic. When everyone has all the food, water, or money they need or want, they can afford to be generous and forgo discrimination between kin and nonkin. When belt-tightening becomes necessary, however, family ties and networks rise in importance.

Let's examine Italian academia. The baroni (university professors) admit their children, and others adopted into the family network, directly into their departments or recommend them to other baroni. The baroni also admit students with raccomandazioni from politicians, businesspeople, or friends and neighbors. Applicants who do not fall into these categories are rejected. My Ph.D. adviser turned down students without the required pedigree even if they were academically outstanding and he had empty slots. He had to keep the slots vacant because his phone could ring at any moment with a request to take a student he couldn't refuse.

The year I applied to the biology doctorate program at the University of Rome, there were eight open slots, and the eight winners had been previously agreed upon. I wasn't one of them. But a couple of weeks before the concorsi (competition and review), the National Research Council offered funding to support two additional fellowships. The baroni did not have time to negotiate these positions, so two outsiders—a friend and I—were admitted. We squeezed in through a crack in the system. Still, we couldn't find a professor willing to serve as adviser.

Eventually, after some arm-twisting, my friend and I persuaded an adviser to take us on. Three years later, however, after I finished my Ph.D., it was made abundantly clear that those who had entered academia without raccomandazioni could not expect to go further. After doors were shut in my face one too many times, I moved to this country.

Scandals involving rigged concorsi have received plenty of media attention in Italy; countless newspaper and magazine articles have been written on the subject. Several years ago, the weekly news magazine L'Espresso published a cover article entitled "The Baroni's Mafia" and cited some of the best-known scandals of academic nepotism in Italy.

The inner workings of the academic mafia were revealed when university phones were wiretapped by the police. In 2005, Paolo Rizzon, a professor at the University of Bari, was recorded discussing strategies for manipulating concorsi across Italy. In one conversation, he negotiated the composition of a favorable search committee for his son, who had applied for a faculty position; then he negotiated the topic of the examination essay his son would write. Another conversation revealed that a qualified job candidate, who competed against the baroni's protégés, was threatened with physical violence by two Mafia hit men. The candidate withdrew from the concorso. The two hit men were identified by name, and both had criminal records. In another conversation, Rizzon bragged to a colleague that he had to be creative in helping his son and the relatives of other baroni; it's hard to fregare, or screw, outside candidates who are better qualified.

The qualified job candidates who are fregati by the baroni often leave the country. In the last 20 to 30 years, tens of thousands of Italian researchers have fled. The baroni's clans continue to operate undisturbed and have absolute control over the Italian academic system. So it's no surprise that the department of economics at the University of Bari had, at one point, eight professors who shared the same last name: Massari. They were all related. Apparently, this set a new record for Italy; the previous record was six family members in the same institution.

To a biologist, nepotism is simply favoritism toward kin, where kin are preferred and helped at the expense of nonkin. A squirrel, for example, who has saved a few nuts for dinner will share one with his starving brother but not with the squirrel next door. Such altruism, however, is phony. Because family members share genes, helping a relative is a way to further one's own DNA. So this type of altruism is really selfishness in disguise. Many selfish behaviors have evolved because they help us survive and reproduce; these selfish genes are then passed to the next generation. Many nepotistic behaviors have evolved through so-called kin selection.

Examples of nepotistic behavior can be found in almost any species, and some have taken nepotism to the next level. Animals not only help their relatives with food but they also help them gain and maintain political power. One of the most shamelessly nepotistic creatures is the rhesus macaque. Rhesus macaques live in a competitive society and are obsessed with dominance. In many animals, dominance between two individuals is established by asymmetries in their resource holding potential (RHP), which includes traits such as size, age, and weaponry. A male deer, for example, with large antlers is dominant over a male with small antlers. The rhesus RHP, however, looks more like that of a U.S. congressman. A Washington politician's RHP has to do with how much political support he has from his party and how powerful that party is. The same goes for the rhesus macaque; the only asymmetries that matter are those of political support.

The trouble with nepotism is not that relatives are helped, but how they are helped. Indeed, what happens when Tony Soprano's nephew wants to gain control over the drug dealing in his neighborhood? His uncle sends a couple of hit men to whack the competition. But nepotism is neither good nor bad in the animal world. Sure, there are winners and losers; the African lion that captures the gazelle is the winner, and the gazelle that ends up in its stomach is the loser. But the lion is not a bad animal, nor is eating the gazelle wrong. High-ranking rhesus macaques torment and torture unrelated monkeys of lower rank, but in doing so they don't break any ethical rules.

While in humans moral inclinations are strong—in some of us more than in others—the instinct to favor relatives is even stronger. Rules are broken all the time, and nepotism can come with fraud, corruption, and other crimes. Take the popes in Rome: Instead of appointing people based on merit and qualifications, popes hired their illegitimate sons, called "nephews," or nipoti (hence the term nepotism). In doing so, they had to fregare more qualified individuals.

Yet this type of fraud is the least of the crimes associated with nepotism. Millions of people have been killed by ruthless dictators bent on advancing familial interests. Uday and Qusay Hussein—two sons of Saddam Hussein killed in a 2003 gun battle with U.S. forces—would not have acquired immense power and wealth without their father's support.

American society, by contrast, was founded on merit, fairness, and equal opportunity, and Americans have historically resisted and rejected nepotism. Yet family interests do predominate in American economic life. In his forthcoming book A Capitalism for the People: Recapturing the Lost Genius of American Prosperity, University of Chicago economist Luigi Zingales makes the case that American capitalism, once unique for being based on equality, has gradually changed and increasingly resembles Italian capitalism, in which cronyism and nepotism rule.

In one episode of The Sopranos, Tony's wife Carmela tries to pull strings to get their daughter admitted into Brown University. According to Mrs. Soprano: "It's all connections now. It's who you know. If the rules don't apply to everyone, why follow the rules?" So, if we share Carmela Soprano's view, maybe we are all mafiosi.

How They Do It In Italy

Understanding nepotism in Italy requires a few choice words:

  • Baroni: Professors who have influence over student admissions, hiring new faculty, and allocating research funds.
  • Il capo di tutti i capi: Boss of all bosses.
  • Concorsi truccati: The process in which job candidates' exams and credentials are supposedly evaluated, but that is rigged to favor a particular candidate.
  • Fregare: To royally screw someone over.
  • Omertá: Code of silence.
  • Pizzo: Protection money.
  • Uomini d'onore: Men of honor.

Ivory Tower Antics

Dario,

We met briefly last week. I am Vice Chair of ___ and I was very impressed with the work you are doing.

The reason I am writing you is to ask if you have an interest in an intern for this summer. My son is ___ at the University of ___ and we have been talking about your work. Would you be willing to look at his CV and consider a possible internship for the summer? I would appreciate anything you can do to help him get this experience.

Sounds like an Italian raccomandazione, doesn't it? Maybe this is my chance to get a rack of lamb or some Italian sausages. I moved to the United States in 1992, and of the first two academic jobs I interviewed for, one was offered to the daughter of a powerful professor in the same institution, while the other went to an internal candidate, a protégé of the department chair. At my own institution, the University of Chicago, many of the students supervised by well-established professors happen to also be the sons and daughters of other well-established professors.