Italy's academics have entered the political fray to challenge the conservative government led by media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi.
Thousands of academics, who staged street demonstrations in Florence, Turin and Rome against government policy on the judiciary and control of the media, have become standard-bearers of much broader anti-government feeling, unconnected to the established opposition parties.
In Florence, hundreds of academics from all over the country pulled together a rally of 15,000 to protest against alleged moves by the Berlusconi government to intimidate the judiciary.
In Turin, a committee of dozens of university lecturers organised a demonstration of about 700 people. They fear Mr Berlusconi will acquire a monopoly of the media when the government names a new board of directors to the state broadcasting authority.
In Rome, 5,000 demonstrators, including hundreds of academics, rallied in support of the independence of the judiciary.
"I'm glad that universities have become a place for debate," said Luciano Modica, rector of Siena University and president of the Italian Rectors'
Conference. "Florence showed that an initiative by academics can change the course of the nation's political debate."
The academics have shown no mercy towards the weak and ineffectual centre-left opposition of the Olive Tree alliance. Some supporters of the grassroots movement, inspired by the professori , feel an academic could take over leadership of the Olive Tree from professional politicians who have failed to build an alternative to the government.
Francesco Pardi, a Florence architecture professor who last week led a rally of 40,000 demonstrators in Milan in defence of the independence of the judiciary, has half-jokingly been hailed as a possible leader of the Olive Tree.
He said:"We have no formal coordination yet. Contacts with academics in other universities are by fax, email and telephone. We have succeeded in mobilising a 'thinking middle class'. We want to be a new force in support of a compact opposition. But we do not want to be co-opted by any of the opposition parties."
Paul Ginsborg, who came to Florence from Cambridge University in the 1990s, is a key figure in the anti-government movement. He said: "Academics are disgruntled with the reform of the university system and the lack of resources. In previous governments academics were a strong presence in parliament. Since the last elections this is no longer true, so I think, at least in part, there is a desire among Italy's academics to make their presence felt."