Magnifico Rettore dell’Università degli Studi di Palermo
by Luana Maria Alagna

LA: 2018 has represented for Palermo an important showcase on the world, thanks to the title that the city has obtained as capital of culture. In this contest what was the role of the University of Palermo? What are the initiatives put in place by the University in this academic year within the calendar “Palermo Capital of Culture”?

FM: As University of Palermo we are widely present and perfectly inserted in the context of the city, which is also the logic of Palermo University City, even more in the year in which Palermo puts culture at the center of its activity. It is evident that the University is particularly involved in the context of Palermo’s capital of culture. All the activities of the university are part of the cultural context because education is culture, research is culture, assistance is culture. If we focus on the artistic aspect there are a number of planned initiatives, some of which have already been carried out, in different places of the university, through our museum system. Many activities take place inside the botanical garden which is also one of the places of Manifesta installations. Other initiatives will be realized in Sant’Antonino, polo of the reception of the university and centre of languages, where we are launching a series of restorations, that will be completed in July, to host various exhibitions. In the other museums of the university as well as inside the Museum of Geology Gemellaro or the Historical Museum of Engines and Mechanisms there will be articulated further events. For the end of September there is also the Night of Researchers. Finally, at Steri Palace, on our exhibition spaces, in the Verifiche Hall, in the Hall of Arms, in the church where is exposed the “Vucciria of Guttuso”, and also in the Capriate Hall there will be other initiatives and exhibitions, some of which have already been made. The idea is to establish a University Museum at Steri Palace that becomes a historical testimony of our professors and of the university world, connecting, among other things, the Steri with a physical opening on the sea side, in addition to that which overlooks in Piazza Marina, in such a way as to fit us fully to the path that leads from the sea to the Steri, in the Arab-Norman itinerary. Palermo has always been the capital of culture, now we have a greater awareness of it and it is right that this can be the year of consolidation, that we can make it a structural characteristic that we have also always possessed.

LA: The humanitarian emergency in recent years has made the Mediterranean Sea as a paradigm of an oxymoron: death and life. If on the one hand the desperate escape from the war too often fails in a shipwreck, other times it has meant a landing, albeit precarious. The protection of human rights more than in a simple UN resolution has seen its concrete realization in our land. Can the university provide aid for building bridges that ensure respect for human rights? In which terms?
FM: I make two immediate examples. One is the ItaStra experience, the Italian School for Foreigners, which has been acting for 10 years and has had a fundamental role in the teaching of Italian language for migrants and for unaccompanied minors. Professor Gabriella D’Agostino has done an excellent job in the Sant’Antonino Polo, in teaching Italian language to young people, often illiterates. Recently a new multimedia e-learning project has started with the CNR and UNICEF, which aims to provide users, minors but not only, notions of Italian language, history and geography to allow them to pass the third year of the middle school. This is a decisive step in the belief that culture once again is the key and the vehicle for integration. If the migrants once arrived have the opportunity to communicate and the opportunity to obtain a degree of study, they will have a greater chance of integration. Another thing on which we have worked in the past is the welfare side. The radiology colleagues often were involved in the assessment of the age of migrants and minors with the use of medical methods of assistance, essential and necessary in fostering the reception.

LA: Palermo as a bridge between different cultures that inhabit the Mediterranean, becomes, today as in the past, a metaphor of intercultural dialogue, which is the basic idea of “Palermo Capital of Culture”. From this point of view, the University has a key role in promoting cultural and scientific exchanges between scholars and students from Mediterranean, European and non-European countries too. How have this role and this responsibility been experienced by the University you have led?

FM: Palermo from this point of view can be an example. I do not see in Palermo difficulties of intercultural or interreligious integration. The University, for example, has created the Graduation Day, the final event of the academic year where students, graduated during the previous year, meet each other to celebrate. One of the most successful editions was the one made inside the Cathedral churchyard, where the Archbishop and the Chief Rabbi of the Jewish community were involved, all in the logic of the dialogue between cultures. At the Steri Palace, which for two centuries was the seat of the Inquisition, there are the famous prisons of the Inquisition and, in the last few years it has hosted the festival of Lights, which is an important celebration of the Jewish community that takes place right inside the prisons of the Inquisition. Once again culture becomes the root of tolerance, respect and acceptance. If we have more culture these values can win, less culture heightens the risk of intolerance as much as the possibility of lesser acceptance of the other.

LA: In the global era qualified skills and profiles represent the challenge that younger generations face. Universities have a fundamental task that is to ensure good training and research. Many Sicilian students of the University of Palermo after graduation find employment elsewhere. This gives us comfort to the fact that the degree courses of our University effectively absolve their mission. What can the University still do to curb the escape of our best students to the north and abroad, impoverishing our land of its best intellectual resources? What strategies can be put on to encourage the entry of young graduates into the work world?

FM: This is the reason for my commitment in the last two years. I will made another example. During the Graduation Day of December 2017 a girl, who had graduated in industrial engineering the previous October, told me that her thirty graduates colleagues in industrial engineering that day were abroad to work and that she was the only one present at the ceremony. On the one hand I’m happy that our students in many fields once graduates manage to find almost immediately a job, thanks to some economic recovery. Even if they find employment elsewhere I’m satisfied. As a Sicilian, I am a little displeased, because these young people are energies that go away. It should be stressed that we cannot assume a provincial perspective because mobility is always a value. In our history the mobility factor has always been present and it is right that we can move elsewhere to learn, study and work. It is, however, also true that mobility has to be the result of a free choice and is not quite an obligation. So, as you can choose to leave, there must be a chance to choose to return. It’s obvious that you can’t think of having everything here. If you sign up in aerospace engineering, you should be aware that there’s no aerospace industry in Sicily. However, it is also true that the enhancement of some of the leading sectors of our economy, from cultural heritage to tourism, to agribusiness, as well as all the related services, can guarantee to our students greater employment opportunities. Facilitating business as well as infrastructures, innovation, administrative simplification, must be the task of politics. The University should train capable people and act as incentive and stimulus for politics. We can only train students, we do not create jobs except those employment opportunities related to our academic structure. But we can and must be an impetus for the world of “decisions.”

LA: Last year there was a growth of students of about 1000 units compared to previous years. In a recent interview, you stated that these achievements are the result of a renewed educational offer and a greater capacity of attraction operated by our University. Moreover, the University of Palermo is today among the 10 Italian Universities with the lowest level of tuition fee, with the exemption from University tuition fee and the introduction of several facilitations for low-income students. What are your next goals? What areas of intervention should still be strengthened?

FM: You can never stop. The results were obtained because there was a renewal of the formative offer. We have activated a series of degree courses that were not there before and which are unquestionably important. I will make the example of agri-food sciences and technologies that have recently been introduced in Palermo. There was an unaccettable lack in the land of wine, oil and agricultural products. Therefore, it is clear that having attractive degree courses has been important. We have opened a biomedical engineering course, a sector in which many students today show particular interest. We have also worked very hard on services, classrooms, computerization and also on the communication and promotion of our “products”. Even our strong presence in the city has allowed the University of Palermo to say more. And in a more favorable climate, we’ve become cool. Now we are working on two other things on which we have already experienced some results. One is the intense work done on master’s courses, which students often decide to attend outside of Sicily. This year data are very comforting because we have grown by 7-8% compared to students of the magistral courses of last year. We have almost 200 new enrolled students. Another thing that we are investing in and that we are trying to strengthen is the internationalization of degree courses. We decided to make some academic subjects, which we can define as “Sicilian”, as tourism management, international relations, marine biology, totally in English, in order to attract students from all areas of the Mediterranean. We look with great attention at the northern African coast, trying to see if there is a chance to attract even more students. Until now our internationalization has been very “Erasmus-centric” now we want to try to see if there is one more possibility, an additional road.

LA: Palermo as a Capital of culture calls us for a deep reflection on the role of academic culture and how the latter interacts with its civic context. The academic community lives on a deep-rooted relationship with its own territory. I noticed that one of the peculiarities of his rectoral term was to remove the fences separating the University citadel from the city. Graduation Day, the moment in which the graduates of all the university courses meet in symbolic places of Palermo to celebrate their university goal, together with the academic and civic authorities, is the most conspicuous example of this strategy. What is the idea behind this significant innovation?

FM: One day during a demonstration which I attended it was shown a map of Palermo in which there were indicated all the places of our University. We noticed how the University is distributed throughout the city, which indicates their close and deep relationship. Moreover, there is an inevitable consideration. When our students go abroad within the Erasmus project, they choose their places not only considering the quality of the University where the exchange takes place, but also the quality of life of the city where they move on. Therefore, from this point of view can be and are a great resource for the city of Palermo, from a cultural, educational and technical point of view, training and technical support. Conversely, we need the city because a city that works is a city that attracts, and in which one attends the University more happily. We should to stress also that the quality of the training of many degree courses that are outside Sicily is not higher than the quality we are able to offer. Luckily today the relationship with the administration is very strong, the city is growing and it is very appealing.
Graduation Day then is a beautiful moment. We wanted to realize it as a city parade with the idea of leaving the traditional places of the University and go to the places of the city, as it was with the choice of the Cathedral, of Piazza Bologni, of the Martorana or the Teatro Massimo in the various editions that have taken place. The idea of Graduation Day is therefore to realize a significant event for the University, coming out of its walls, meets and mixes with the city.

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