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Denied appointment despite five court verdicts in his favour

When author Godfrey Sweven dreamed up Riallaro, the Archipelago of Exiles, he imagined a group of islands that offered asylum to the misguided. As Anna Ferrari explains in her Dizionario dei luoghi immaginari [Dictionary of Imaginary Places], there was an Isle of Snobs, where everyone was self-important, an Isle of Journalism for compulsive writers, an isle whose inhabitants believed their land was rich, fertile and envied by the rest of the world and an isle where people lived without law, Paranomia.

If Marco Lanzetta had known this earlier, he wouldn’t have wasted his time with lawyers. The trouble is that having studied, lived, taught and operated all over the world from Canada to France, Australia and Africa – he has just spent seventeen days “on holiday” attempting to reconstruct the hands of dozens of children in Togo, Benin, Ghana and Burkina Faso – he had no idea that Paranomia actually existed.

It all started when Lanzetta, who trained as a hand surgeon in New South Wales and Quebec, was the precociously young director of the Microsearch Foundation in Sydney, took part at Lyons in the world’s first hand transplant in 1998, and had already published many of his 190 books, chapters and learned articles, often in leading international journals, decided to take part in the competition at Insubria University for a full professor’s chair in “diseases of the locomotor apparatus”. It was a subject he was already teaching as an associate professor at the Bicocca University: “It looked tailor-made for me”. But he was wrong. “It had been set up for someone else”.

As the latest court ruling notes, this academic saga began in autumn 2002. That was when the selection committee, having examined the candidates, declared that “Professors Giorgio Pilato and Paolo Tranquilli Leali are qualified and Professor Lanzetta is not qualified”. Was the committee right? Was it wrong? We have no wish to discuss this. Because even if Lanzetta were erroneously considered abroad to be a star instead of the dunce who just happened to have carried out the world’s first hand transplant, and the only such transplants in Italy, the point would be this – should court rulings be respected or not in universities?

This is what matters. Convinced that there was a huge difference between his CV and publications – most in English, including two in The Lancet – and those presented by the other two candidates, Lanzetta appealed to the regional administrative court (TAR), which, in due course and without hurry, in 2006 ruled in his favour, “adjudging unreasonable the selection committee’s negative evaluation of Professor Lanzetta’s specific specialisation”. The two professors promoted by the university but not by the judges, and Insubria University, appealed to the Council of State, which also ruled in favour of Lanzetta. So what did Insubria’s rector do then? He repeated the “evaluation procedure”, accepted the resignation of the selection committee chair, appointed a new chair and confirmed the other committee members. A year after its defeat on appeal – after all, there’s no hurry – the committee again pronounced Professors Pilato and Tranquilli Leali to be qualified and threw out Lanzetta, who had dared to challenge their decision.

It was all so odd that the story was picked up by the Corriere della Sera, where Mario Pappagallo pointed out who the unsuccessful candidate was (“500 operations a year with his team at the Monza institute of surgery, with units at Milan, Bologna and Rome”) and recorded his accusations at Italy’s selection procedures (“remote-controlled selection competitions where the winner’s name is known in advance and other participants are discouraged”). Pappagallo wrote: “The Lanzetta who is not qualified to teach hand surgery in Italy is an illustrious victim of the country’s de-meritocracy, selection committee cliques and the nepotism deep-rooted in Italian universities”. Result, zilch. Which is precisely what the websites set up to protest at “Universitopolis” scandals have obtained.

However, the tenacious Marco Lanzetta – “I’ve finished with Italian universities but this sort of thing must stop” – appealed again. And in April 2009, the TAR again ruled in his favour, ordering “the annulment of the disputed records”. Eight months later, the Council of State followed suit, throwing out Insubria University’s counter-appeal. The ruling ordered the university “to repeat the annulled comparative evaluation procedure and appoint a new selection committee” to “ensure objective conditions of impartiality” since on two occasions the same committee had failed to respect what the magistracy had laid down.

Are you losing count? Lanzetto four (court rulings), Insubria University nil. And there was more to come. Again, the university went through the selection procedure, again the same two candidates qualified and again Lanzetta was rejected. Not a man to give up easily, Lanzetta went back to the courts and this time, he faced not just Insubria University and the winning candidates but also the ministry. Which brings us to the final ruling. The first section of the Milan TAR, Francesco Mariuzzo presiding, criticises the committee for “giving positive prominence to a monograph by Professor Pilato (“Pseudoarthrosis of the Scaphoid”) published after publication of notice of the selection examination”. Judge Mariuzzo objects that sitting on the committee was “Professor Gianni Zatti, who was incompatible for that duty having collaborated with Professor Pilato in a university context, in their professional activities and as co-author in the publication of a work”. Finally, the ruling notes explicitly that the committee has “wide-ranging technical discretion” and of course “a magistrate cannot usurp its function”. It is, however, “equally incontestable” that the magistrate “cannot fail to point out any errors in the evaluations made by the committee where such errors are objectively identifiable”. In other words, if glaring distortions are evident “beyond the sphere of opinion”, then the magistrate has a right and a duty to intervene.

In short, the final ruling says that the latest Insubria selection “reproduces the same defects” of the earlier annulled procedures, is “in contrast” with the magistrate’s orders and even though it implements those orders formally, “actually tends to pursue the aim of circumventing them in substance in such a manner as to achieve surreptitiously the very outcome already deemed illegitimate”. For this reason, the entire procedure “must be annulled”. Final result: Lanzetta five, Insubria nil. In a serious country, the rector, the members of the committee and the winning professors would all resign.

But that would be in a serious country, not Paranomia.


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