A University in Milan Shops for Professors Elsewhere

June 9, 2008

Milan, the commercial capital of Italy, is a bustling city of finance and boutiques, so the choice of words among education planners at the country’s leading private university to explain their attempts to put an end to a regional brain drain would appear to come naturally enough.

Bocconi University is in the midst of a “shopping spree” for international academics to help its effort to turn a corner on Europe’s decades-old reality of intellectual flight, one of the university’s leading academics tells a visiting reporter.

While no official statistical analysis exists, the growing number of college-educated émigrés is considered dramatic, especially those leaving the commercial heartland of the industrialized north. Within the European Union, about one in every 20 Italian scholars currently work abroad, while fewer than 1 in every 100 scholars employed in Italy are foreign-born, an unrivaled national record that inspired a popular book, Cervelli in fuga, or Brains on the Run, a collection of stories about Italian researchers who had fled abroad.

Fulvio Ortu, an Italian-born professor of mathematics at Bocconi since arriving back here in 2002 after teaching for four years at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business and the Columbia Business School following his Ph.D. studies at the University of Chicago, is among the educators most closely involved in an ambitious plan to nudge the trend in a better direction, recruiting at least half the institution’s new professors by 2010 on the international market. Precise numbers at this point are still uncertain, but the intention is not.

The drive is part of a wider 10-year strategic plan that would see the university double its foreign enrollments to 15 percent of the overall to student body, ramp up student scholarships to 12-million euros, or $18.5-million, and trim back its 12,000-strong cohort of undergrads by as much as one-fifth.

Bocconi is also in the middle of a $150-million fund-raising campaign — a first for the country — aimed at putting it on a steadier footing with some of the top international institutions in America, and elsewhere, that it regularly jostles for ranking space with in many published surveys of the world’s “best” university schools.

That would appear to fit well with the oft-stated goal of European Union leaders to make the EU "the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world,” a particularly relevant challenge for places like Italy and Britain. The Greek daily Ekathimerini recently cited European Commission data from 2006 showing "a massive flow” of American-bound European scholars, fewer than a third of whom planned on returning home upon completion of their stateside studies.

A persistent problem in realizing that goal, however, as well as the fact that member countries are largely left to their own devices when it comes to figuring out how the goal might best be achieved, is the ongoing “brain drain” – a phrase that was, tellingly, coined in Europe, by the Royal British Society, during the continent’s first postwar intellectual exodus back in the 1950s – of the region’s best and brightest academics for greener American pastures.

Coming Tuesday:
Brain drain issues draw attention in Lebanon and Israel.

Luring professors in the opposite direction would seem harder still, Ortu suggests, but not impossible even in notoriously bureaucratic Italy, where universities are as liable to be spoken of as hotbeds of political influence-peddling as venerable intellectual centers.

“I think we’re making this work, but we have to work much more to keep it that way,” Ortu says, noting that the strengthening value of the euro against the greenback has also proved an unexpectedly useful marketing tool in a country within whose public higher-education system at least a working professor earns around $1,200 a month. For its part, Bocconi offers salaries it says are competitive with most public American institutions.

“We try to give them the same money, the same data bases, the same travel money, the same package, and perhaps a little more as well.”

Research opportunities, he suggests, fall particularly well into the latter category. An associate professor at Bocconi typically teaches no more than three classes, and in some cases only two, an arrangement that obviously allows significantly more time for research than at some American colleges.

Catherine Rogers knows. An associate professor of law at Louisiana State University, part of the attraction for her in heading here to teach for a semester each year has been “this competing European thing that’s developing against America,” Rogers says. “It’s an interesting movement to be a part of, even if it’s probably a bit surprising for some Americans,” she adds, referring to the earlier decades when America’s academic supremacy was as much a fact of life as the soaring strength of the greenback.

As might be expected, Rogers makes much of the academic opportunities and rewards that a European institution such as this, where English is the general language of instruction, make available, but also “what you might call a loss of confidence” in some American colleges, where getting by academically seems more and more like a struggle. Even so, she admits, “you do feel an outsider in some ways,” despite the opportunities her arrangement allows for researching Europe judicial canons and common law up close and professional. she The American scholar specializes in research on international arbitration, a subject she is currently writing a book about for Oxford University Press.

Cosmopolitan Milan, after all, is unlike many other Italian city in terms of ease of navigation for an American, while Italy, although the land of the great medieval scholars, currently lacks a model for producing an academic elite.

Other than a university like Bocconi, Italy “can feel mysterious, hard to get on one’s feet, even very unpleasant for teachers who often are teaching people who might be earning more than them,” Rogers says. Low salaries make it hard to attract professors and sometimes harder to retain them if and when they are offered better deals abroad. More than a quarter of Italy’s 60,000 academics do not have tenure.

For all that, however, Vikas Kumar, is another foreign academic who found coming here an easy choice. Kumar, an Indian citizen and assistant professor who earned his Ph.D.in international business and marketing at Saint Louis University, has a contract with Bocconi until at least 2011, and says he has no regrets in deciding against positions that were offered to him in Asia and the United States

Even so, he notes with a slight frown, the Italian government requires him to renew his work visa every two years, and the required procedures, not only for Kumar but the university, can be aggravating.

“Everything that has to be done has to be done by the bureaucracy, and that’s probably the number one problem for we outsiders,” he says, referring not to the Bocconi but the famously top-heavy Italian system in which “the rules and policies keep changing and no one knows from one day to the next what’s going on.”

Kumar takes a break from the subject for a moment to rattle off the names of a few restaurants and cultural events a visitor might want to check out here in Europe’s shopping capital, before turning his attention back to the shopping spree his parent institution has embarked on.

“You can see why,” he says, referring to the hard slog of dealing with a government that sometimes seems a little less concerned than his parent institution when it comes to plugging brain drains, “for all the good things happening here at Bocconi, some academics might get so frustrated that they would consider heading to the U.S., Britain or Australia for another kind of life.”

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