Universities are among the oldest organisations in the Western world. The University of Bologna was founded in 1088, Oxford and Cambridge not long thereafter. Some forty European universities that continue to operate today were founded before 1500. Dozens of American universities have been in existence longer than the United States.
Yet, as has become clear last week, the survival of even the most distinguished universities cannot be taken for granted. On April 4, just a week after the measure was first proposed, the Hungarian parliament rushed through the passage of an amendment to its Education Bill that threatens to shut down the Central European University (CEU), which has become the most successful university in Central and Eastern Europe, over the past quarter-century. On April 10, Hungarian President János Áder signed the legislation. The CEU’s President and Rector Michael Ignatieff has made it clear that the CEU will continue its operations, no matter what, but it faces a very real threat of being forced to leave Hungary.
The legislation — formulated in general terms but plainly directed against the CEU alone — would require the CEU, which is fully accredited in both the United States and Hungary, to operate educational programmes in the US as well as in Hungary; it would oblige the CEU to change its name; it would end the practice of allowing non-EU faculty to teach without work permits; and it would allow the university to operate only on the basis of an inter-state agreement between the United States and Hungary.
The first of these would be prohibitively expensive and serve no educational purpose; the second would destroy the symbolic identity of the university; and the last two would fatally compromise the autonomy of the University by subjecting its operation to the discretionary approval of the Hungarian government.
The legislation has provoked stunningly broad opposition in Hungary, across Europe, and around the world. Tens of thousands marched in protest in Budapest, and Hungarian academic institutions, European heads of state and government, scholarly associations of all kinds, the presidents of Princeton, Harvard, and other universities, and twenty Nobel Laureates have spoken out strongly against the measure. Even many of Orbán’s own supporters have criticised the legislation. Zoltán Balázs — a conservative political scientist and Fidesz-affiliated deputy Mayor of Budapest’s XV district — observed in an interview that if the government gets its way, Hungary will become “a darker, more Balkanic country of less interest to the west and, from a social, economic and scientific point of view, we will slide back into the ranks of countries that can barely even claim to be ‘also-rans’.”
It is to all appearances a self-harming act. The CEU’s graduate programmes are ranked among the top 50 worldwide in politics and international studies and among the top 100 in philosophy, sociology and social policy and administration. No other Hungarian university comes close.
The CEU has the best library in the region and allows Hungarian university staff and students to use it for free. The university cooperates closely with Hungarian institutions on research projects, brings in substantial external research funding to the country and sponsors a wide range of programmes that enrich the cultural and intellectual life of the city. It employs over 600 Hungarians and enrols about 400 Hungarians — who comprise the largest group of students — each year.
It is famously difficult today to work out what the Hungarian government’s next moves will be. With a strangled media, an enfeebled opposition and a political elite that are held hostage by Orbán and his inner circle, analysts are reduced to the Hungarian equivalent of speculative Kremlinology. All that is certain is that nothing gets done by his government without Orbán’s express permission. But all signs suggest that the government introduced the legislation with the intent of forcing the CEU out of Hungary — if it proves unable to destroy its autonomy.
The personal and ideological antipathy of the Prime Minister and his circle toward the CEU’s founder and benefactor, George Soros, is well-known. Less well-known is the piquant fact that Orbán himself and several of his close associates received Soros-funded fellowships to study at British universities (Orbán attended Pembroke College, Oxford as a Soros scholar in 1989-90) and that the nascent Fidesz movement itself, before it became a political party, benefitted handsomely from Soros’s largesse. As Fidesz moved steadily to the right, however, relations with Soros became strained and Soros and the network of NGOs funded by his Open Society Foundation crystallised as the arch-symbol of everything the Fidesz regime loves to hate.
Mr Orbán has openly endorsed the kind of “illiberal democracy” that is championed by Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Erdoğan and Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew. This represents the literal inversion of the model of “Open Society” championed by Soros and by the CEU itself. The CEU has long been a thorn in the regime’s side. Its liberal ethos and cosmopolitan atmosphere — with a faculty from 30 countries and students from over a hundred — represent the antithesis of regime’s illiberal nationalism. Until now, the CEU’s status as a private institution and its $880 million endowment, one of the largest in Europe, have protected the university’s autonomy. However, that autonomy has now been subjected to a full-frontal legal and political attack.
Commentators worry over a possible Marine Le Pen presidency in France, but in Mr Orbán, the European Union has already met its nemesis: an ethno-nationalist authoritarian who wishes to reconstruct public life on the basis of “Christian and national” rather than liberal principles. To date, however, the EU has been entirely ineffectual in responding to the regime’s creeping authoritarianism over the last several years.
While trumpeting their own anti-communism at full volume (many of Mr Orbán’s economic policies are designed to “grab back from the communists all they stole from us”), the style in which they conduct politics resembles nothing so much as that of the Bolshevik rulers of the region.
Since 2010, Orbán’s government has, inter alia, sought to force out the independent head of the National Bank by drastically cutting his salary. It has also sharply lowered the retirement age for judges in order to force large-scale retirements and to fill the vacancies with its own appointees. It has destroyed a once flourishing independent press and brought cultural institutions, local governments and even schools under government control. Now it seeks to shut down a leading university. Perhaps not coincidentally, this move coincides with growing political pressure on the similarly cosmopolitan and liberal European University of St. Petersburg, whose license was revoked, on flimsy pretences, by a Russian arbitration court in March.
The liberal “open society” philosophy that animates the CEU should of course not be immune from challenge. There are important arguments against the rights-based discourse of justice and social policy that hold pride of place at the CEU. However, those arguments must be made — and are being made — in the sphere of intellectual exchange. Indeed at the CEU itself, where the Rector inaugurated a series of public discussions, in January, dedicated to rethinking the basic assumptions of the open society concept and engaging with its critics. It is not the business of government to pre-empt such debates by shutting down the key sites of intellectual exchange.
In a country where the independent media have already been destroyed, universities represent a last crucial institutional bastion of free thought. Yet the quality of teaching and research — and of intellectual life more generally — depends on the free flow of ideas across national boundaries. The CEU has made vital contributions to that free flow during the last quarter century. It would be a dark day indeed — and a grave blow against the principle of academic freedom and the practice of free and open intellectual exchange — if the CEU were forced to cease its operations in Budapest as a result of Mr Orbán’s petty and vindictive campaign.
The Orbán regime appears to have been caught by surprise by the strength of the opposition to the legislation, and Orbán appears to have wrongly assumed that the Trump administration would support the legislation (or at least turn a blind eye). There are some signs that the government might be interested in a face-saving compromise that would permit the CEU to remain in Budapest, but meanwhile the government has pressed ahead with another piece of legislation that targets NGOs affiliated with the “Soros empire,” as Orbán called it in a radio interview on Easter Sunday.
Backing down entirely on the CEU in response to international and domestic pressure — pressure that Orbán expressly attributes to the power of the Soros network — would not be easy for the Prime Minister. But doubling down on opposition to the CEU is not necessarily a good option either for the regime. The issue has managed to mobilise domestic opposition and to crystallise and focus international attention in a way that none of the regime’s other authoritarian measures was able to do. At this writing, the situation remains quite fluid, as international opposition continues to build, while the street protests in Budapest have taken on a broader anti-regime character. The outcome of this fight is still very much an open question.
The article was jointly written by Professor Rogers Brubaker and Michael Stewart, Professor of Anthropology, University College London (UCL) and a recurrent visiting Professor in Nationalism Studies at the Central European University (CEU). He has worked on Hungarian public life since the mid-1980s. Stewart has written on Romany populations in eastern Europe and his most recent book was The Gypsy Menace — Populism and the new Anti-Gypsy Politics.
The views expressed in this opinion editorial are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Emerging Europe’s editorial policy.