ITALY's anti-Mafia commission is investigating the University of Messina in eastern Sicily as part of a wider probe into corruption in the city. Results of an education ministry inquiry are also awaited.
This year university buildings have been damaged by three bombs, and academics, students and administrators have reported threats and intimidation attempts.
In January, a prominent surgeon from the medical school, the son-in-law of a former rector, was shot dead in a Mafia-style execution while he sat in his car. Two other lecturers have been shot in the legs, and at the end of last month the university general secretary's car was riddled with bullets.
A number of professors, suspected of being involved in corruption related to the supply of goods and services to the university, were until recently under house arrest.
Questioned in parliament recently the university minister Luigi Berlinguer said he was "greatly worried".
"The criminal acts against academics, students and university institutions leave little doubt as to their origins and type," he said in an obvious reference to Mafia-type organised crime.
Professor Berlinguer said that repeated calls from the ministry for an investigation failed to receive a firm response from the university administration or from rector Diego Cuzzocrea.
"On February 20 I asked the rector to justify certain circumstances. First of all why the university administration had reinstated all the incriminated professors in their rank and functions. It is not known why they were not suspended, as would have been necessary, given the nature of the incrimination."
Professor Berlinguer revealed that in February he ordered an investigation into supplies to the university medical school and into all outside contracts.
Among the suspected supply firms is one owned by the rector's brothers, who are accused of having overcharged on medical supplies by 400 per cent. The rector recently said publicly that his own holding in the company was sold two years ago, thus clearing him of any suspicion.
Investigators are working on the premise that, in a city notorious for the presence of the Mafia in many areas of public and private business, the university, with its massive turnover of public funds, has become another rich cake to be cut up among "friends" and "friends of friends", fought over in Mafia fashion and defended against anyone foolish enough to try to intervene.
The media has drawn attention to the rector's personal relationships and interests which could be construed as constituting a conflict of interests.
However, Professor Cuzzocrea recently declared he had received a threatening note, which read: "You will be next."
Gaetano Silvestri, professor of constitutional law at Messina, told the daily newspaper Corriere Della Sera: "This is a city and a university of silence. Those who talk are considered agitators. Fear prevails everywhere, and becomes resignation."
Investigations are predicted to take several years before the extent of Mafia involvement in the university is revealed.