Masonry is alive and recruiting in academia. So does it deserve its reputation? Chloe Stothart reports
In an imposing Victorian building, men in ceremonial robes gather. After eating strawberries in a well-kept garden with views of college rowers paddling down the river, the men assemble in a high-ceilinged hall with elegant wood beams and a thick chequered carpet for a long meeting. Once business is taken care of, there is a short walk across town for dinner in a local college dining hall.
This could easily be a congregation of dons. It is in fact a meeting of the Durham branch of the Freemasons, but plenty of dons are present. Universities Lodge in Durham is one of nine in a scheme organised by the national Freemasonry body, The United Grand Lodge of England, to attract more students and academics to its male-only membership.
There have been eminent academics in the Masons through the ages, according to Aubrey Newman, emeritus professor in the School of Historical Studies at Leicester University.
It is difficult to say how many Masons have current university links, as figures are not kept and some members remain reticent to declare that they are, or were, Masons. But United Grand Lodge says the number of young members, including students, is growing. Chris Connop, media relations manager for the organisation, said he was interviewing three to four applicants a week, three quarters of whom were between 20 and 30. In the past he interviewed one a fortnight.
In Durham, the Masons have gathered for their meeting and to welcome two new members - both students - into their ranks.
The master of Universities Lodge in Durham is a senior lecturer in classics at the university. George Boys-Stones joined as a graduate student at Oxford, which has a very active university lodge, having first considered becoming a Mason as an undergraduate when a friend suggested it to him.
"I think the deciding factor is the people you meet who are Freemasons," he said. "When I joined I found a wonderful group of people. It is quite unusual to find a relaxed, convivial society where you can take things for granted about the religious or moral seriousness of people you are with but have a good time too." However, he thinks it is not very popular among academics. "The dominant ethos of academia is left-wing, secular humanism, and one requirement of Freemasonry is to believe in God," he said. "It has a slightly old-fashioned remit that does not really appeal to the typical academic."
But some university staff combine the traditional trade unionism of academia with Freemasonry. One such is Bahadur Najak, a lecturer at Durham's Business School. He joined while working at Newcastle University after a student on one of his executive education courses asked him to come along to a dinner at the local lodge. As a long-time trade union member, he has been president of Durham's branch of the Association of University Teachers, a member of the national executive and is now the equalities officer of the university's University and College Union group.
Attitudes to Freemasonry within the union and the university varied widely, he said. "I've had discussions with people, and the most extreme end thought that all Freemasons are capitalists and could not care less about the workers," he said. "I do not think that is always true. They are like any other cross section of society: some are anti-union captains of industry and others are very much in the union." He added that traditional trade union hostility towards Freemasonry seemed odd as the Masons were set up as a sort of friendly society collecting funds for members in hardship. They now raise large sums for charity. He felt no need to mention his membership in his union election address: "It's irrelevant; it is like being a member of Durham Golf Club."
But he did recruit a colleague. "It came up in conversation and I said I was one. He said: 'You can't be. You're not stinking rich.' We had lots of discussions over coffee and he joined the lodge."
Freemasonry flourishes in universities with more traditional cultures, such as Durham, Oxford and Cambridge, Mr Najak said. "It fits with things like gowns, sherry and the senior common room, but there are very few of those (universities) left," he said.
How does he square his commitment to equal opportunity with the all-male Freemasons' reputation as a club for mutual back-scratching - where its generally secretive nature, however much it tries to open up to the public, still arouses suspicion?
"We are forbidden by the laws of Freemasonry to show special favours, so I do not think there is a danger there," Mr Najak insisted. Favouritism was no more likely to happen than it would between people who know each other from any other sort of outside activity, like the golf club, he said.
Among the throng of Masons gathering in the bar is one Durham tutor who is visiting the lodge to see whether he would like to join. "Before I went to a meeting I'd been influenced by a Monty Python view of it as an upper-class networking group with a secret quality to it, but when I started to look into it it wasn't like that at all," he said.
Although too coy to want his name made public, he also maintained that Freemasonry's emphasis on behaving with honour would rule out conflicts of interest between staff and students in a lodge. The two groups socialise outside the classroom in Durham: academics frequently dine with their students, and several university societies have members from both groups, he pointed out. "It is a bit like (social networking website) FaceBook - people meet in a different context to their normal academic situation," he said. Having enjoyed the meeting, he was keen to join.
But he still did not want to give his name.
Oh, brother! The Masons are 'overwhelmingly an organisation of white men'
June Purvis, professor of women's and gender history at Portsmouth University, offers her views on Freemasonry in academe
The announcement that the Freemasons are to campaign in our universities fills me with dread. The prime loyalty of a Mason is to other Masons. This can mean, therefore, that fellow Masons are privileged in regard to key and influential areas of academic life, especially promotions.
The Masons are overwhelmingly a single-sex organisation of white men (although there is a small separate female group). Historically, our universities have been sites of male privilege, and the struggle of women to enter them and be accepted on equal terms has been painstakingly slow. Although the majority of our undergraduates are now women, this does not mean that our universities are always female-friendly places. This is particularly evident in regard to university staff, where the higher the post, the fewer the women. The fact that only 17 per cent of professors are women and just 13 per cent are black or from minority ethnic groups is not good news. In the old days of patronage, exercised by vice-chancellors, a few chums would be consulted in regard to the worthiness or not of a candidate for promotion. It is to be hoped those days have gone as standardised procedures have been produced. But talk to any academic in our universities today and you will find that concerns about the pernicious influence of Freemasons is with us still. There is no doubt that some bland mediocrities are promoted to posts beyond their level of competence. Invariably, the suggestion is that they are Masons.
If an academic is a Freemason, then that should be declared for all staff to know to avoid conflicts of interest.