Interview with Antonella Polimeni, rector of La Sapienza University Rome

Wanted in Rome put questions to Dr Antonella Polimeni, the first woman rector of La Sapienza, the oldest university in Rome and the largest in Europe.

By Marco Venturini
WiR: How and to what extent has the university world been affected by the covid-19 pandemic and what measures have been put in place by La Sapienza to alleviate the consequences of the various lockdowns?
AP: The covid-19 pandemic, which arrived unexpectedly throughout the country, forced universities to react promptly so as not to interrupt teaching and to guarantee the right to study. In my opinion the response of the whole university system was very effective. In the second semester of the 2019-2020 academic year, La Sapienza ensured that 95 per cent of its teaching was carried out remotely. In a few days, La Sapienza ensured the transition from in-person to remote learning. We have demonstrated a resilience that cannot be taken for granted for a complex and diversified institution such as ours, with 115,000 students – 9,800 from abroad – 287 different courses and 177 graduate programmes. This response has also been possible thanks to the commitment of our faculty and technical-administrative staff.
Before the temporary 'red zone' restrictions took effect recently we had resumed 50 per cent of the teaching activities of the second semester 2020-2021 in person from late February, in line with the decision taken by the academic senate of La Sapienza and by the conference of rectors of the universities of Lazio. All courses are taught in person and can be accessed by students either in the classroom or at a distance, regardless of the year of the course. Laboratory activities, exercises and research are also carried out in person. Finally, exams and graduation sessions are held in person, in line with the education ministry safety and health guidelines. They can also be held remotely for those students who request it.
Access to classrooms is in compliance with all the current covid regulations, and the spacing and tracking of attendance is guaranteed through the Prodigit computer system which must be accessed in advance by students. When teaching resumed, the university also launched a free covid-19 screening campaign on campus.
What is the role of online teaching and what, in your opinion, is the future of distance teaching? What are La Sapienza's initiatives in this regard?

In the initial phase of the emergency, thanks also to ministerial funds, we were able to equip all areas of the university with information technology, along with other Italian universities. In the future, the experience of these months will allow us to continue to ensure a part of our teaching will be remote. In fact, there is no doubt that from the teaching point of view, this emergency has been an important experience. The digital tool is certainly useful for international students and for those who are off-campus, as well as for continuous training.
I am talking about supplementary lessons, self-assessment tests, or life-long learning, all areas for which distance teaching can be complementary, even if not a complete substitute. University is always a moment of training, including social training, so presence is essential, because there must be a direct exchange between the teacher and the student. Recourse to remote learning has been, and still is, an obligatory choice that we will be able to exploit in the future.
What are La Sapienza's strong points within the context of the city of Rome?
In opening itself to the city and the greater Rome area, our university aims to build a relationship and a shared system with the socio-economic, cultural and urban sectors. In our complex society, it becomes increasingly necessary to acquire the different forms of knowledge necessary to support the formation of programmes of public and cultural interest, as well as for human and social development. Of particular interest are Open Science and activities related to the pursuit of the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations Agenda 2030 that our university wants and can promote. We still have a great deal of work to do to strengthen the relationship between La Sapienza, the city of Rome and the Lazio region. I would like to point out that La Sapienza has confirmed its position as a world leader in classical studies, and is the only Italian university to boast a first place position in international rankings.
This brilliant achievement, the result of commitment and passion, is part of our university's tradition of excellence in the field of classical studies, with innovative courses entirely in English, spaces to study among statues and decorative friezes in the reading areas of the Museum of Classical Art, and also cultural initiatives such as the Theatron Project, in which students adapt and stage Greek and Latin texts. We are talking about a founding discipline of our society and as such it must be preserved and passed on to new generations. It also offers analytical tools and transversal skills that make the difference in the job market and in a rapidly changing socio-cultural context.
La Sapienza University in Rome. Photo credit: rarrarorro / Shutterstock.com.
How do these two realities integrate and complement each other? It is necessary to deepen a profitable and lasting relationship between La Sapienza and the city, which hosts a large number of other universities and research centres, each with their own student and academic bodies, without being able to draw a sufficient synergy. It should be emphasised that the university includes all activities, in addition to research and teaching, that are open to the outside world and that go by the name of Third Mission.
This includes research, academic entrepreneurship, spin-offs and start-ups, as well as science and technology parks. In addition there is the entire sector of the production of public goods, from the management of cultural assets (excavations, museums, historic buildings) to the protection of health (clinical research centres and bio-banks), continuing education and cultural and scientific outreach projects.
The importance of research is increasingly important. What are La Sapienza's achievements in this field?
Ours is one of the oldest and largest scientific communities in the world and it is also one of the most complex. In recent years we have maintained a high level of international prestige as shown by the periodical university rankings. However, I must confess that we have achieved this performance with great effort because we find ourselves operating under difficult circumstances. Italy invests too little in research.
We are well below the European average and we rank only 27th in the international ranking for research spending. We only allocate 1.4 per cent of of gross domestic product to research which is not much if we consider that Germany, Denmark and Austria invest exactly twice as much and the average for the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is 2.4 per cent. Also, the number of the researchers in Italy is among the lowest. And it could not be otherwise considering that there are still few graduates compared to the active population.
The only positive note is the quality of our research. The covid-19 pandemic has clearly shown the strategic importance of research, training and assistance for the country in terms of the right to health, a particularly important issue for us. La Sapienza has two university hospitals (Umberto I and S. Andrea), as well as the Polo Pontino research centre, and we are the only university in Italy to have this breadth of facilities. It's no coincidence that we train 10 per cent of doctors, dentists and other healthcare professions in Italy. And this period has truly demonstrated the important role of the entire medical sector.
How does it feel to be the first woman rector of La Sapienza and what is the role of women in the current and near future in Italy and Europe?
My election had an impact beyond the purely academic sphere because La Sapienza now has a woman rector for the first time in its 717-year history. However I would also like to note that I was elected in the first round of voting with 61 per cent of the votes: this was also something new. I prefer to talk about a success of merit and method widely shared within the Sapienza community.
The Minerva statue by Arturo Martini is one of the principal symbols of La Sapienza. Photo credit: Enzoartinphotography / Shutterstock.com.
On the issue of gender, which concerns university students, staff and faculty, we must act to ensure equal opportunities for equal abilities and allow those with merit to have equal access. The data confirms that female students do better than their male colleagues: they enter university better prepared, they graduate earlier and with better grades.
Female professors make up about 40 per cent of the total teaching staff, and the majority of technical and administrative staff are women. This is certainly a good record. However if we go into details women only make up 27 per cent of the top teaching roles and currently all 11 faculties are headed by men. However La Sapienza is above the national average in this regard, and the overwhelming majority of the directors are women, including our director general.
I believe it is very important to promote projects to encourage women as early as secondary school. The new prime minister, Mario Draghi, recently announced that his government will invest in projects to encourage increasing numbers of young women to train in strategically important digital, technological and environmental sectors of the economy. Policies must also be put in place to bridge the gender gap and to reconcile work with personal and family committments.

 Before her election as rector of La Sapienza for a six-year term, Polimeni was dean of the university's faculty of medicine and dentistry. She is also the first female rector to be elected to a major Italian university.

This article was published in the April 2021 online edition of Wanted in Rome magazine. Cover photo of Dr Antonella Polimeni by Stefania Sepulcri.

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Interview with Antonella Polimeni, rector of La Sapienza University Rome

Piazzale Aldo Moro, 5, 00185 Roma RM, Italy