At the medical faculty of the University of Genoa last year, three candidates competing for a professorship in obstetrics were asked to simulate an operation on a corpse to demonstrate their knowledge of gynaecological anatomy. The examination did not exactly go smoothly.
First, the university morgue could not find a female body. That in itself might have invalidated the whole exercise, but since the operation the candidates were asked to perform was the removal of the urethra, an organ common to both sexes, it was decided they should use a male corpse instead.
The body arrived, but it had been cleaned out of all its internal organs because it had just undergone a thorough autopsy.
End of exam, one might have thought. But no, the examining commission somehow managed to award differing marks to the candidates anyway, and on that basis made their nomination for the professorship.
The episode has now been referred to a Rome investigating magistrate out to prove that open competitive exams for university posts in Italy are systematically rigged.
Over the past few weeks, prosecutor Adelchi D'Ippolito has been investigating hundreds of cases of nepotism and blatant favouritism, almost all so far in medical faculties.
Among the names referred to him is that of Corrado Manni, the Pope's personal anaesthetist, who is also head of a nationwide commission for appointments in anaesthesiology. Also under investigation is Luigi Frati, all-powerful dean of Rome University's faculty of medicine, whose wife had remarkably little trouble obtaining a tenured post in history of medicine at the University of L'Aquila, whose brother-in-law has a prestigious position in general pathology and whose niece has just won a coveted research job in anatomical pathology.
It is a scandal that reaches far beyond the medical world, however. When Mr D'Ippolito announced the first results of his investigation a week ago, it provoked cheers from those increasingly sickened by the corruption of the university system as a whole, a system described by one ex-academic as "the last feudal power-structure left in the Western world".
The feudal "barons", as university grandees are nicknamed, have done more than just promote their friends and family into positions of influence. They have eroded the very intellectual basis of university life, in many cases falling far short of acceptable standards and treating their students with indifference bordering on contempt.
The nature of their sins varies from faculty to faculty. In well-funded areas such as science or law, university insiders say, the issue is less one of incompetence than of interference from political parties and powerful industries, which lean on faculty deans to appoint their proteges to influential posts.
Aspiring professors cannot rely on academic brilliance alone: they need a "saint in paradise", a patron who will eventually get them a tenured job but as often as not will demand several years of near-slavish devotion in the form of research assistance first.
Graduate students not prepared to play the game either leave academia or flee abroad. Italy has lost hundreds of first-rate scientists in this way.
In the arts, by contrast, the power politics are purely internal and have given rise to educational abuses on a grand scale.
"There is a saying that giving a university post to an intelligent person is easy; the sign of real power is to give a post to someone of no intelligence at all," says Raffaele Simone, a Rome linguistics professor who has become a pariah in university circles for his denunciations of the system.
Thus the friend of a former minister for the universities has become a professor of comparative didactics, even though she does not have one of the basic prerequisites, a knowledge of foreign languages.
Many of the problems in the universities date back to the 1970s and 1980s, which saw a massive expansion in higher education.
With the number of institutions nearly tripling, from 25 in the late 1960s to 65 now, the number of jobs available was so large that corruption was virtually inevitable.
A law in 1980 converted many casual posts into fully tenured positions, with the result that many people without proper qualifications were sucked into the system.
Mr Simone estimates that, even today, 80 per cent of active university teachers owe their status to the legislation of 1980.Reuse content