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Firm grip of corruption

By Domenico Pacitti

Diego Cuzzocrea, the rector of the University of Messina in north-east Sicily, has been charged with aiding and abetting the Mafia. This follows his resignation last month after police enquiries into the allegedly simulated theft and attempted destruction of his own car in order to mislead murder investigations. The University's pro-rector Giacomo Ferrał, and administrative director Eugenio Capodicasa face similar charges.

Cuzzocrea, the 55-year-old professor of surgery, who only two months ago was voted into his second term of office on a two-thirds majority, is also being questioned about the murder of medical professor Matteo Bottari, shot dead in a Mafia car execution in January.

Meanwhile, Giuseppe Longo, 46, a professor of gastroenterology at Messina, was arrested on Mafia charges in late June and is being investigated in connection with the Bottari murder. Longo, who is being held in prison, is alleged to have links with a Calabrian cosca clan.

The University had provided a regular Godfather scenario of violence stretching back 20 years and culminating in a two-year crescendo of campus bombings, shootings, intimidations and murders.

The Messina Committee for Peace and Unilateral Disarmament, a voluntary organisation founded in 1981 to combat the Mafia, racism and the exploitation of southern Italy by the north, has revealed full details of the Cuzzocrea family's 26 companies. Covering a wide range of activities including building construction, pharmaceuticals and food supplies, the family gained a firm monopoly of the University's £80 million-a-year contract work, with the rector literally running the University as a sort of family business. Yet no one spoke out.

Analogous complaints are now being made against the University of Palermo, and there are increasing fears that higher education minister Luigi Berlinguer's single university autonomy and privatisation policies with their lucrative, locally administered contracts, could create considerable Mafia interest. Criticism has also been expressed over Berlinguer's repeated failure to intervene in Messina despite his alleged long-standing knowledge of the situation.

Messina committee member Giuseppe Restifo, a professor of modern history at Messina and chairman of the local Green party regional council, explains: "A natural subservience to power, the fear of retaliation, popular scepticism in the efficacy of justice, and the sharing of common interests with organised crime are the main reasons for reticence. This social consensus of silence has produced a Kafkaesque feeling of cultural death, moral stagnation and impending doom and must first be defeated if any real progress is to be made."

"The extensive violence," he points out, "is due to the fact that control of the University is being contested by three rival gangs from Palermo, Catania and Calabria, each of which has members within the University itself. Paradoxically, the real danger sign will be when things calm down, as this will indicate that the University has been definitively consigned into the hands of the successful gang."

But the most disturbing aspect, he feels, is that Messina offers a foretaste of what Berlinguer's privatisation and autonomy reforms could hold in store for Italy's remaining 60 state universities: "Messina stands as a shining example of a de facto autonomous and fully privatised university. The situation in the rest of Italy may be less violent and less dramatic, but the basic principles are the same, with practices in the north in some senses even more contemptible."

Another committee member, Antonello Mangano, aged 23, presented a painstakingly researched 400-page graduation thesis on the Mafia to a stunned examination commission in February. It explored the concept of mafia, tracing its history and connections with Italian freemasonry, and documented its unchecked presence within the same University of Messina.

The epigraph, a quote from film director Pier Paolo Pasolini, set the tone: "They have in only a few years, especially in the centre-south, become a degenerate, ridiculous, monstrous and criminal people." The seven-minute oral exam, one of the shortest on record, was witnessed by a packed hall of curious observers and conducted by a commission of nine professors who denied him full honours as well as the opportunity to discuss his work.

"There was great tension," he recalls, "and the commission could not wait for me to stop talking. None of them even looked at me - they kept staring down at the floor or up at the ceiling. But my biggest disappointment was that they, too, chose silence."

Both the traditional Sicilian Mafia and university mafias, he admits, share many features such as the total lack of moral and social conscience, the code of silence, the exchange of favours, membership of power groups prepared to break the law, and the ruthless use of power to instil fear and a sense of servility. The important difference, he emphasises, is violence.

"Berlinguer's reforms," he argues, "simply lend continuity to the various negative processes in course. Italian universities continue to operate essentially as instruments for the accumulation of power. Berlinguer must make a clear break with this tradition."

Despite their exceptional honesty, courage and tenacity, both Restifo and Mangano reject any hero's label, preferring to see themselves as simply normal people in an anomalous situation.

The Messina committee's findings are confirmed from a foreigner's perspective by David Petrie, a Scot whose Verona-based Committee for the Defence of Foreign Lecturers combats all forms of university injustice and corruption.

He said: "Berlinguer has asked for the spotlights to be kept on Messina. They should, of course, be aimed not only on Messina but also on himself and his rectors, from whom Italy can expect nothing but silence and subterfuge. An important step forward would be for British academics to refuse to share a platform with their Italian counterparts."

Some of Italy's strongest voices are joining the appeal for radical change. President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, a former education minister, is known to have persistently vetoed premier Romano Prodi's recommendations of freemason rectors for prestigious appointments.

Federico Zeri, widely considered the greatest living historian of Italian art, observed: "Universities are one of Italy's three biggest cancers; bureaucracy is another. The third I won't mention in order not to offend religious people."

"The real problem is that our professors have too much power," he said. "They should be given a three-year contract with the state, renewable on the positive judgement of students and faculty."

Indro Montanelli, Italy's veteran social observer, explains that the term 'mafia' designates not a criminal organisation but rather a typically Italian corporative spirit which finds its most brutal and historically rooted variety in Sicily.

He warned: "When you live and work in a mafia-run environment such as an Italian university, it is extremely difficult not to have some sort of dealings with mafia. These dealings may range from full complicity to tolerance and favouritism. Those who do not accept this should leave."

Speculation is now taking place over who will win in the end: those on the outside trying to get in, or those on the inside trying to get out.

Note: This article first appeared in The Guardian on July 7 1998. A slightly shortened version, titled "Corrupt seats of higher learning", was published in The Guardian Weekly on September 20 1998.