The freemasons have been in secret negotiations with Sheffield University to set up a multimillion-pound research centre to "promote the interests of freemasonry", The THES can reveal. The university this week confirmed that a "centre" would be established, and a launch is planned for next month.
It is unclear what shape the centre will take and how it will be funded, but leaked documents show that talks have been going on for at least a year. The university has been seeking to establish the first university-affiliated masonic research centre, and an endowed chair, at its Humanities Research Institute. The architect of Sheffield's plans has made clear he wants to "foster a positive agenda" for freemasonry and use research to dispel negative images.
In a letter, grand master John Clifford said: "The idea has a lot to offer, and if there is a prestigious independent body promoting the interests of masonry in this way it will accomplish more than our own internal efforts. It will lay (to rest the idea) that we have something to hide." But he added: "Details are best kept to a restricted group."
The letter tells of the "great enthusiasm" for the plan from the university. It is understood that the idea was first mooted by teaching fellow John Wade, who openly lists his "interests" as freemasonry. In a more formal proposal written early last year by Philip Davies, the commercial director of the Sheffield HRI and a biblical studies specialist, he confirms: "The university believes that the establishment of a masonic research centre would be of enormous benefit to its own research activities, to the Masonic Order itself and to the history of freemasonry."
Professor Davies stressed in his paper that the director of the centre, although appointed by the university, "should be committed to furthering the study of freemasonry and fostering a positive agenda of research". The director would also hold a chair.
Professor Davies wrote: "Freemasonry has been viewed as a secret society, as a religion, indeed as a dangerous and undesirable organisation I freemasonry belongs to the mainstream of English social evolution."
Sheffield has been seeking at least Pounds 250,000 funding from the freemasons, primarily to establish a chair for at least five years. University documents, dated September 1998, obtained by The THES, state:
"Sponsorship from the United Masonic Grand Lodge, for a centre of masonic studies is under negotiation. The indications are that funding for a chair for five years, with a commitment to raise funds for an endowed chair, will be forthcoming in the next academic session. An initial approach will be made in July to the Halifax for capital funding in the region of Pounds 2 million, including premises, a chair and equipment."
Some academics have expressed objections because they are worried about academic freedom and equal opportunities. Supporters of the plan point to research access to the freemasons' archives.
This week a spokesperson confirmed that a centre would be established, but could not provide any details, as he needed the freemasons to approve a press statement. Sheffield University is one of several universities that has a freemasons' lodge named after it.