David Aliaga arrived for his PhD oral examination at the appointed date, time and place. His committee, however, failed to return the favour.
What, under ordinary circumstances would be disconcerting, was disastrous for Mr. Aliaga. A Canadian citizen and a candidate for a PhD from the University of Calabria in Italy, he had flown halfway around the world at personal expense to defend his thesis.
Now he stood face to face with an empty examining room.
Matters did not improve. Aliaga learned the missing committee had been struck only days before his arrival in Italy and was completely unfamiliar with his work. When the committee was finally convened, at Aliaga's vociferous insistence, they were irate at the interruption of their summer schedule and quickly failed his defense.
Adding insult to injury, Aliaga learned the negative decision could not be appealed. His repeated requests to obtain the academic record of his years of study in Italy have also been ignored.
David Aliaga's story is not unique. The treatment of visiting academics in Italy is by any measure appalling. In 1989 and again in 1993 the European Court of Justice upheld claims by foreign lecturers that they were the victims of discriminatory treatment by the Italian university system.
Subject to unequal pay, lack of job security and shut out from full academic posts, foreign lecturers have banded together and challenged the archaic operations of the Italian education bureaucracy.
Italian authorities have responded by mass firings, interminable legal appeals and by simply ignoring the rulings of the European court. Indeed, the European Commission has initiated a lawsuit against Italy, demanding it abide by the court's decisions.
Faced with this daunting history, one might forgive David Aliaga if he just walked away from his disastrous encounter with Italy's universities. However, Aliaga, a refugee from Pinochet's Chile, is familiar with political struggles and is girded for a long battle.
His demands are simple -- an independent review of the negative decision on his final doctoral examination and a copy of his academic transcripts.
In support of these modest goals he has mounted an impressive campaign of support from scholars around the world and has taken his case to the European Court of Human Rights, the European Court of Justice and UNESCO. However, the Italian authorities show no sign of compromise and Aliaga's academic career is still on hold.
He vows to continue the fight and cautions scholars venturing overseas that the academic freedoms and protections that Canadians enjoy may not be present elsewhere.