The investigation was launched thanks to an English-Italian academic who collaborated with finance police to expose the corruption and has been hailed as a hero by Italian media.
His evidence shed light on nepotism among heads of Italian university departments, known as 'baroni' or 'barons', who bestowed qualifications based on exchanges of favours or private or professional interest, rather than basing them on merit.
Of the 59 people under investigation, seven have been placed under house arrest for corruption and a further 22 have been banned from holding academic posts for a 12-month period while the investigation continues, Italian finance police said on Monday.
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In total, a team of more than 500 police officers searched over 150 locations ranging from private homes to offices and legal firms.
“The investigations have allowed us to find systematic corrupt agreements among many tax law professors – some of whom are public officials as members of various national commissions,” police said.
They said the corruption was first brought to light after a research fellow at the University of Florence, who has been named in Italian media as Philip Laroma Jezzi, was allegedly put under pressure to withdraw his candidacy for a qualification as a professor of tax law.
Jezzi claims he was asked to step back so that a less qualified – but better connected – candidate could put himself forward, and was promised he would be selected next time in exchange for the favour.
Instead of accepting the offer, he reported the incident, which happened during the 2012-13 academic year, to police, and spent the subsequent years secretly recorded conversations with senior academics which have shed light on how widespread the exchange of favours was.
One phrase from the incriminating phonecalls, transcripts of which were published by Repubblica, has prompted a particular backlash in Italy.
When Jezzi protested about the way qualifications were being awarded, he was apparently told: “What will you do, appeal? That way you'll risk your career. Stop doing things the English way and do them the Italian way.”
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The statement has prompted huge backlash in Italy, with some social media users adopting the hashtag '#JeSuisPhilip' to celebrate the academic's actions. “Philip Jezzi Laroma is an example that all people of merit should follow in order to avoid settling for imposed mediocrity,” wrote one Twitter user.
“Italy needs more Philips!” commented another.
Jezzi, who works for a Florentine legal studio as well as at the university, was not available for comment when contacted by The Local, and has told Italian newspapers that he has “done his part”.
The rector of Florence's university, Luigi Dei, issued a statement following the arrests, saying: “News like this hurts the university community and casts a shadow over the work and commitment of many researchers and academics and, in general, on the Italian university system.”
Italian Education Minister Valeria Fedeli said the government has been working with anti-corruption authorities to create a 'code of conduct' aimed at tackling nepotism and corruption in higher education. The document is now at the consultation stage and should be launched in October, Fedeli said.
The arrested teachers worked at universities in Rome, Naples, Bologna, Siena, Cassino, Foggia, and Varese. Also under investigation is former minister Augusto Fantozzi, who held cabinet positions between 1995 and 1998, is one of those under investigation, though his lawyer says Fantozzi denies the charges.
Photo: Luca Invernizziderivative work: F.delu/Wikimedia Commons