Bocconians by Choice

Bocconians by Choice


«We want to attract people who, despite having alternatives, choose Bocconi. We don't want to be passively accepted, we want to be preferred ». While saying this, Francesco Billari, sociologist and professor of demography, is not thinking only of the students but also of the professors who, as Dean of the faculty, he recruits and selects for the university. After all, he was the first to choose the University in via Sarfatti for his debut as a student in 1989.

What was Bocconi like back then? Among much that has changed, what has remained unchanged?
Bocconi was coveted even then, but completely Italian, indeed, the share of Lombard and Milanese students was large. Its excellence was very specialized and above all it had to train managers for Italy. However, there was already a great ambition to excel, and this is an aspect that has remained. It is not so obvious. While attending other historical institutions over the years, I realized that this drive and pride, similar to that of the founder, has been able to confirm and renew itself over time.

In those years the largely prevalent specialization was that in business administration; instead you chose economic policy and then statistics. What drove you in this direction?
Actually, I entered the university with the dream of working in an international organization. Then I encountered statistics and saw in the power of data a great opportunity to change the world. Data is a radical and extremely effective form of knowledge for unraveling problems or describing phenomena. It can also be done with literature or art, but I like to do it with numbers, preserving a creative part that is what still fascinates me today. In addition, in demographics, I have the opportunity to combine interest in the world with data because we study cultures, births, deaths, migrations.

Is it true that among the students you soon earned the title of "human face" of statistics?
It is a definition that Professor Cifarelli, a luminary of statistics and director of the Institute of Quantitative Methods, actually gave me during my first steps as a teacher. The statistic exam was then considered an aching tooth to pull during the course of study: an inevitable but useless disease. Today I don't think anyone thinks that way anymore; everyone must know how to work on data and those who analyze society through data are increasingly central to the economic and social system.

After your experience in Oxford, he returned to Bocconi in 2017 to hold the position of Dean of the Faculty, a role that also includes the management of teaching staff. How do you perform this role?
I feel like a professor doing institutional service and in this respect I believe that being a credible academic is essential to be accepted in this role. The other important aspect is that it is a temporary assignment: once my term is over, I will go back to being a teacher and I will be evaluated. However, it remains a delicate task because here every three years the many brilliant and competent colleagues we have must get involved and undergo an evaluation process. And then there is the other aspect of the assignment: winning the challenge to attract the best researchers and teachers from abroad.
How does the evaluation of a faculty member take place? Do teaching methods "weigh" as much as research? And does the students' opinion enter into the merits?
We divide the evaluation into three areas: research, teaching and service. For a Bocconi professor it is essential to excel in the first two: being an excellent researcher is essential but here the professors will never be replaced in the classroom. In addition, we also evaluate the service, that is to say how much a teacher has made himself available to the university in administrative roles. As for the students' judgment, that also counts, but of course it must be weighed against the difficulty of a course,  whether it is compulsory or not and other factors.

What is the state of health of the labor market for university professors?
For researchers who have an international market and who are willing to move there are many opportunities; the sector is very dynamic and new institutions are always emerging in countries that were not attractive until a few years ago and instead are now popular destinations. This is a challenge for us because it is not easy to attract talent here or retain those who are coveted by the competition. In Italian public universities, budget constraints or the distribution of resources between departments often greatly limit this possibility. At Bocconi we are more fortunate because we are independent and moreover we can offer remuneration that competes with those of the best international universities.

What do you say as the last, best factor to convince a teacher to choose Bocconi?
First of all, I tell my personal story: I was in Oxford but I chose to return here because of some unique aspects, such as the constant ambition to improve, the openness to innovation and the possibility that everyone is given to make a difference. And then Bocconi is a bit like Milan, it has two roots because it knows how to grasp the best of two worlds, the international European and the Mediterranean. And this is a feature that no one else in the world has.
Biographical box
Milanese, 49 years old, Francesco Billari is professor of Demography and since 2017 Dean of the faculty. His history at Bocconi began as a student and continued as a young statistics and demography assistant in the 1990s. "I left the university to do my doctorate in Padua and then to go to Germany, in Rostock, to a new location of the Max Planck Institute dedicated precisely to demography. Here young scholars were already entrusted with the responsibility of coordinating small research groups, something unthinkable in Italy at the time ». In 2002 his first return to Bocconi as associate professor, which was followed by ten years of teaching and the foundation of the Carlo F. Dondena Center for Research on Social Dynamics and Public Policies. In 2012 a new departure, this time for Oxford. “It was an occasion to which one could not say no and which included, in addition to teaching, also the role of director of the sociology department. An all-encompassing experience in which the whole family, wife and five children who were from 3 to 14 years old followed me. They were all enthusiastic about the new adventure, indeed, to be honest they protested more in 2017, when we decided to return to Milan, so much so that a couple of them wanted to stay in England to finish high school or university ".

by Emanuele Elli

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