Nepotism in the U.S.: Starting to Resemble Ukraine

In many countries around the globe nepotism in higher education is not unusual at all.

April 29, 2018

Nepotism is getting more attention in the US higher education media. The Chancellor of SIU Carbondale, Carlo D. Montemagno, came under scrutiny because his daughter and son-in-law were both hired for university jobs created specifically for them.  While Chancellor Montemagno proposes campus-wide cuts, his daughter, Melissa Germain, and her husband, Jeffrey Germain, began working in newly-created positions, with Melisa earning $52,000 annually and Jeffrey earning $45/hour. 

The news, first reported by the campus publication,Daily Egyptian, has gained national attention. The SIU student news site offers somewhat diverging views of university officials on the matter. SIU’s coommunications and marketing director, Rae Goldsmith, said that, “It’s not unusual because that’s part of what you do to negotiate to get the people you want here,” commenting on a verbal agreement between Chancellor Montemagno and SIU President Randy Dunn. Faculty association president, Dave Johnson, holds a different view. He says that while spousal hires are not uncommon in universities, bringing a child and her spouse on board is quite unusual. “I’m not a lawyer and I don’t understand all the legalities involved, but I do take the ethics test on a yearly basis and it says you can’t hire people just because they’re family members. They have to be the best people for the position. It would be surprising if the new chancellor’s daughter and son-in-law suddenly became the best people for positions in the weeks and months after he was hired.” 

An investigation is now under way. President Dunn suggested that, “The information that’s been reported certainly presents a set of facts that is appropriate to examine.”

Montemagno’s four-year contract includes $340,000 annual base salary. In addition, relocation cost totaled $65,930, of which the university covered $61,000. It was later revealed that $16,076 was paid for the relocation of Montemagno’s daughter. Following the release of this information and the subsequent scandal, Montemagno reimbursed the university for his daughter’s relocation cost. 

This is not a new practice for Montemagno.  He has provided employment for his daughter and son-in-law previously, when he was dean of the college of engineering school and applied science at the University of Cincinnati. 

This is also not the first case of alleged nepotism in the Southern Illinois university system. In 2011, the granddaughter of the then SIU president Glenn Poshardreceived the SIU Presidential/Chancellor Scholarship worth $80,000, sparking criticism that nepotism played a role. Poshard denied any intervention in the selection process and insisted that his granddaughter earned the award on her own merits.

The policy on nepotism clearly outlined at SIU Carbondale and approved in 1982, states that, “No employee shall initiate or participate in institutional decisions involving a direct benefit (initial employment, leave of absence, tenure, promotion, sabbatical, retention, salary, etc.) to any person related to him/her by marriage or blood.”

In many countries around the globe nepotism in higher education is not unusual at all. Italy has been periodically shaken by nepotism scandals. Last year Italian finance police exposed a practice where the right personal connection could lead to an unearned qualification. The term itself comes from Italian word nepotismo originating from the Latin nepos, meaning nephew. 

Chancellor Montemagno’s missteps pale in comparison with misconduct by academy dons in autocratic settings. Chancellor Montemagno is by all measures an amateur, at least when compared to nepotism found in universities in other parts of the world. One master of nepotism resides in Ukraine, in one of country’s top universities. Until recently, Dmitry Melnichuk, the rector of the National University of Life and Environmental Sciences of Ukraine, gave preference in hiring decisions to family members. Melnichuk served as the rector for three decades. During his tenure, he employed 29 relatives, including immediate family members as well as close and distant cozens and cousins. His wife and two sons held top administrative positions. Employees of the university joked, “One relative per year.” Rector Melnichuk holds a doctorate in biochemistry and membership in the National Academy of Sciences. He has US connections including as an honorary professor at Iowa and Arkansas State Universities and as an honorary lifelong member of Louisiana State Senate.

Communist regimes understood the threat that can accompany appointments based on kinship. In the Soviet Union, there was a legal ban on nepotism in academia. The ban even precluded spouses from working in the same department. But the ban is long gone. Today, not only rectors, but deans and department chairs routinely hire their offspring, in-laws, and even grandchildren to faculty positions. Children of faculty members and university administrators study in departments under their parent’s supervision on publicly-funded assistantships. In this way, universities are converted into family enterprises—there are plenty of departments where several faculty members share same last name. 

Leading American universities are at the top of world university rankings and generally the gold standard for higher education, including respect for high ethical standards. In the US, hiring a qualified spouse is the norm, also known as a dual career accommodation policy. But this practice has not been without scandal. The nepotism outrage at Southern Illinois Carbondale isn’t an exceptional case. In 2006, Chancellor of the University of California Santa Cruz, Denice Denton, committed suicide, jumped to her death from high-rise building following criticism due to the hiring of her partner to an administrative post with a salary of nearly $200,000. 

In 2016, a similar scandal occurred at the University of California Davis. The chancellor, Linda Katehi,first became famous for student pepper-spray incident in 2011. In 2016, Chancellor Katehiwas forced to resign amid allegations of nepotism. The case involved Chancellor’s husband, son, and daughter-in-law with questionable promotions, pay raises, and funding. 

Favors to relatives reflects poor judgment and indulges a practice of academic corruption. Will dual-career couples bring about multiple-career family management? Perhaps there is a way to do this ethically and transparently. The question now is whether Carlo D. Montemagno will follow Linda Katehi’s example and resign. Or whether US academic and political leaders will exercise more scrutiny over the hiring practices or take the risk that American higher education could begin to resemble higher education in places like Ukraine.


Ararat L Osipian is a fellow of the Institute of International Education, New York, and honorary associate at the Department of Political Science, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and holds a PhD in Education and Human Development from Peabody College of Education at Vanderbilt University, where he came as a fellow of the US Department of State.


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