Italy's superstar semiologist and Nobel prizewinner Umberto Eco has become the founder and first president of a new school of excellence in his native Bologna.
Professor Eco said: "I am thinking in terms of a place to organise courses that are not tied to any specific faculty, but are open to the academic and scientific world, and also to citizens, with lectures by personalities of international renown."
The Scuola Superiore di Studi Umanistici will mainly provide courses and seminars for postgraduate students in psychology, literature, political science, languages and psychology. The official opening this week was graced by Italy's president and university minister, while Nobel peace prizewinner Elie Wiesel was due to deliver the first lecture on the subject of the Talmud the same day. Next on the list is composer Luciano Berio, who will lecture on music. Several seminars have been scheduled, involving eminent academics or cultural personalities from Italy and elsewhere.
Partly modelled on the College de France, the Scuola is housed
in the 16th-century Palazzo Marchesini, with wooden-beamed ceilings and Renaissance frescoes, in the heart of Italy's oldest university city.
The project is backed by Bologna University's rector, Fabio Roversi Monaco, and paid for from the budget of the liberal arts faculty.
"Interest in so-called schools of excellence has existed in Italian universities for some time - and not only in Italy," Professor Eco said. "Abroad as well, there are complaints of the levelling down of academic standards. A university for the masses is inevitable, but requires elite correctives."
There have been murmurings, presumably from envious fellow-academics, that by founding Scuola Professor Eco has created his own personal university. But Professor Eco, 68, responds: "In a few years I will retire and someone else will take over. In any case, I may be the president, but there is a college of superintendents, of authoritative intellectual personalities who are outside the dynamics of academic power."
In an interview with the Corriere della Sera, Professor Eco said he had no qualms about the role of the humanities in a world dominated by new technologies.
He said: "I believe it (humanistic culture) is the winning card. In the software universe, those who have studied ancient Greek may be much more perceptive than experts in electronics. A humanistic culture is understood not as a nostalgic recalling of the past, but as methodology, as a spirit of logic and philosophy. What we say to our students in communications sciences is, 'do not ask us what this degree will be useful for - between the time you enrol and when you leave so many things will have happened that you will know what to invent while we won't.'
"When we invented this course eight years ago, the internet did not exist. The digital era requires people with flexibility and imagination. I'll never forget that at the dawn of the computer era Adriano Olivetti liked to hire graduates in philosophy and literature rather than engineers."