Yesterday evening I chanced to attend, invited by a friend, the opening of the 2013-2014 academic year of the university of Venice "Ca' Foscari", which was held at the Malibran theater. It was the first time I attended one such event, since technically (and practically) I am not an academic, but a researcher at the INFN, the Italian National Institute of Nuclear Physics. I do occasionally teach university courses (I just took a break from doing so after 5 years of teaching a course of subnuclear physics for 5th year undergraduates); but I do that for the university of Padova, not Venice - my office is at the department of physics of the university of Padova. Besides, Venice does not have a course of laurea in Physics.
The event was organized like a true show. The discourse of the "magnifico rettore" (the university president) Carlo Carraro was followed by music, then prize-giving ceremonies, more music, videos, a "lectio magistralis" by the winner of a special prize, and a small piece of a theatre performance by students of the university.
Also impressive was the stage behind the speakers: a giant screen stood on the back, and in front of it sat 28 students, each on top of one big coloured box. The boxes carried labels of the various "ingredients" of the Ca' Foscari university: "Departments", "Research", "Cinema", "Music", "Sports", "Summer Students", "Graduate Student Programs", "International ties", "Sustainability", "Alumni", etcetera. The students faced the audience and followed the works, and at specific times (when the discussion brought up the topic corresponding to the label on their blocks) they would pick the block up and insert it on a peg in a large array. This activated the block, which lit up and became an independent video screen. So bit by bit a large composite video screen took shape, colourful and entertaining. Quite a show, indeed.
The ceremony lasted a full three hours. I must say I was impressed by the faultless organization and by the quality of the videos and materials that were shown. But I was also a bit saddened to observe what universities have become, even in Italy, in the XXIth century. I know I am old-fashioned in this respect, but I still believe that universities should be free institutions where researchers and professors teach and progressed their scientific and humanities studies, without being subjected to the conditioning power of having to deliver a product, or of attracting more students than their competitors.
Instead, universities these days look to me more and more like business enterprises, where what matters is the quantity of the "products" they produce, the number of students they attract, the amount of private investments they collect. All these are not specific ingredients of the progress of human knowledge, but rather ancillary nuisances which have grown to become the main deliverables.
Don't get me wrong - I am all for private investments helping fund basic research. But this should be a natural outcome of the activities we perform in the university, rather than the ultimate goal of our activities!
The fault of that subversion of objectives is not of the universities themselves, but is rather to be ascribed to the choices that have been made by the Italian government, which has progressively married a model of the universities as private organizations, where competition and profit are everything. The right of students to be taught at the university has silently disappeared as a value for our society, and the cost of attending Italian universities has grown to be of the order of 10% of an average salary. This is creating the conditions for a new society divided into classes according to wealth - those who can afford to study, and those who cannot. If you call that progress, you are misguided at best.
So the academic year has started at Ca' Foscari. Did we really need a ceremony that cost several dozen thousand euros ? Of course, yes - it's good advertising, and that money will be well paid for by the increased applications, donations, and financing by private companies. And of course, no - we should make sure that the progress of knowledge should happen regardless of our advertising efforts.