Italian universities, already staggering under scores of corruption investigations, now face the charge that half of all rectors are freemasons and that the semi-secret international Catholic organisation, Opus Dei, exerts influence on appointments.
The latest round of university-bashing exploded after Stefano Podesta', a university lecturer who was minister for universities and scientific research in the 1994 Berlusconi government, alleged that "half the rectors of Italy are freemasons".
Raffaele Simone, a distinguished Rome linguist and outspoken critic with two books on universities to his credit, commented wrily: "One wonders why Podesta' is saying this now and not when he was minister. Anyone familiar with Italy's universities knows that the freemasons are extremely powerful, especially in the medical and legal fields."
It is common knowledge that a group of rector-freemasons habitually meets to discuss university policy outside the official rectors' conference, that in many universities only freemasons become rectors, and that for some top jobs, particularly in medicine and law, masonic approval is needed.
Many of the lecturers interviewed by the media refused to name names or be quoted. Some indicated that the masonic network could turn nasty and ruin careers.
A spokeswoman at the Grand Oriente d'Italia, Italy's largest masonic lodge, said it had over 15,000 members, but that its list of members was kept secret, "to protect their privacy".
Opus Dei also has power in universities. It has a number of institutions to indoctrinate and guide students. But more significant is that professors who are Opus Dei members tend to favour those who think along similar ultra-Catholic lines. Opus Dei is as much a temporal as a religious organisation, combining strict Catholic doctrine with a quest for political and financial power and influence. "The freemasons and Opus Dei are rivals for power," said Professor Simone. "But when it is mutually convenient they can become allies."
The existence of these two semi-secret societies meshes with the system of patronage, nepotism and reciprocal hand-washing that permeates universities. Since last year over 100 professors have been under investigation for irregularities in the competitive exams by which university posts are assigned. All are accused of having chosen not the best-qualified candidates, but those who they wanted to have the job for altogether different reasons. In January last year Paolo Fiorani, who presided over the examining commission for a post teaching cardio-vascular surgery, was sentenced to two years in prison. The court found him guilty of having given the job to a named professor in exchange for a job given to one of his pupils.
Universities are rife with reports of jobs distributed by the all-powerful academic baroni to offspring, wives, lovers and faithful disciples. Under a centralised system with national commissions formed to allocate job openings, the exchange of favours between academics sitting on different commissions is unofficially considered normal. "We must change the rules that govern the system of competitive exams," said Judge Adelchi D'Ippolito, who heads the investigations into academic malpractice and exam-fixing. "But this is a job for legislators, not the law courts."
Recently Francesco Balsamo, a professor at a Rome medical school and so powerful as to have earned the nickname "The Pharaoh", was reinstated in his job after being suspended following his arrest for taking pay-offs from pharmaceutical firms. His daughter Clara recently won a competitive exam, beating several much more qualified candidates. In medical faculties, birthright often counts more than qualifications, and is called "genocracy", the transmission of power through the DNA.
Given the precarious power of governments and the excellent relationship between the political and academic establishments, hopes that radical reforms can move beyond the stage of heated and long drawn out debates in the cultural pages of the major newspapers remain dim.
Before the exam took place, Professor Fiorani tried to dissuade another candidate from applying and blithely explained that the post was already, de facto, assigned.
A reform of the appointments system is mooted but nothing has changed yet. "The current system favours so many personal and group privileges . . . you do not shoot the cow that provides the milk," Mr Simone explained.