Academic Freedom Imperiled in Hungary, Russia


On April 4, the Hungarian Parliament passed a law that could compel Central European University (CEU), founded in 1991 by the liberal financier and philanthropist George Soros, the liberal financier and philanthropist who promotes democratic, transparent government and freedom of expression through his Open Society Foundations, to cease operations in the country.  The move came two weeks after an arbitration court in Russia revoked the license of European University at St. Petersburg (EUSP), founded in 1994 with support form American foundations, upholding a decision by Rosobrnadzor, the Federal Service for Supervision in Education and Science.  EUSP is widely considered to be one of the best private educational institutions in Russia.

The Hungarian law “endangers academic freedom and the future of CEU, which has educated a generation of leaders in Central and Eastern Europe,” said Lydia Gall, Balkans and Eastern Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The president should not sign a law that seems motivated by a desire to silence critical voices in Hungary.”  The measure would prevent the university’s Hungarian legal entity from offering American degree programs and would require CEU to offer programs in New York State, where it is chartered.

The law requires universities registered outside Hungary to have their operations approved though a “contract” between the Hungarian government and the university’s state of origin, in the case of CEU between Hungary and the relevant United States authorities. It also requires the university to establish a campus in the country in which it is registered, which in CEU’s case will mean opening a new campus in the US. The law will reinstate work permit requirements for non-EU citizen university staff teaching at the campus in Hungary, a requirement currently waived for CEU. These changes will impose significant costs that could jeopardize the university’s continued operation.

Some of the provisions appear to be directed at CEU specifically, including the requirement that universities originating from non-EU countries need bilateral contracts between governments for operations. The law also prevents the American and Hungarian entities from sharing the same name, meaning that the Central European University – a direct translation of the Hungarian Kozep-europai Egyetem – may no longer operate under that name.

CEU’s president and rector, Michael Ignatieff, described the legislation that was passed as “even worse than the draft that we saw last week” in that it moves up the deadline for compliance. The new law requires that a binding agreement be reached between the U.S. and Hungarian governments by September 1 and by New York State and the Hungarian government by January 1.

Ignatieff said the legislation “makes the absurd request, the constitutionally absurd request, that any future operation of CEU should proceed on the basis of an agreement with the federal government, the government of the United States. I don’t know why the Hungarian government seems unaware of the Constitution of the United States, but the Constitution of the United States makes it clear that only state authorities have jurisdiction in this matter. We have had an agreement with the state of New York signed by Republican Governor George Pataki in 2004, which has been the basis upon which we’ve had a very productive and law-abiding relationship ever since.”

Ignatieff said the university would ask the president of Hungary, János Áder, “to exercise his constitutional responsibilities to review the legislation.”

In a March 31 letter, the Executive Committee of the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies expressed its alarm at the proposal, noting that

CEU has a stellar reputation internationally, and is among the most prominent Hungarian institutions on the international stage. It has established itself as a private international university with a global reputation for teaching and research in the social sciences and humanities. It attracts students from 117 countries and faculty from 40.  Its programs are both internationally accredited and certified by appropriate Hungarian authorities and it has complied in full with all Hungarian laws. . . .

The proposed amendments to Act CCIV on National Higher Education not only endanger the standing a prominent and valued member of the international academic community, but may very well damage Hungary’s well-founded international academic reputation, and its relationships to European and North American partners.

According to a report in Inside Higher Ed,

Thousands of people rallied in Budapest Sunday in support of the university, and thousands reportedly protested Tuesday after the legislation was passed. The U.S. Department of State has also lent its formal support, having issued a statement last week urging the government of Hungary “to avoid taking any legislative action that would compromise CEU’s operations or independence.”

On Tuesday, after the legislation passed, the chargé d’affaires of the Embassy of the United States to Budapest, David Kostelancik, issued a statement expressing disappointment at “the accelerated passage of legislation targeting Central European University, despite the serious concerns raised by the United States, by hundreds of local and international organizations and institutions, and by thousands of Hungarians who value academic freedom and the many important contributions by Central European University to Hungary.”

The statement from the U.S. Embassy describes CEU as “an important component of the U.S.-Hungarian relationship for 26 years” and says the United States “will continue to advocate for its independence and unhindered operation in Hungary.”

If you wish to take action, please write to János Áder, President of Hungary, who can still veto the decision in the coming five days:

You can also sign this petition:  Support for the university has come from scholars across the world, including 17 Nobel Prize winners.  For a full list of those who have said #IstandwithCEU go here and to declare your support for CEU directly go here.

In Russia, the government contests the qualification standards European University of  St. Petersburg applies to its “instructor-practitioners” — a vaguely defined labor category — and says the school breaks state regulations with the work hours it assigns to these employees.  According to university officials, however, the government has refused to clarify what these standards are.  Last December, Rosobrnadzor briefly suspended European University’s license over the same concerns, but an arbitration court sided with the school.

At that time, the university issued a statement describing the situation:

In July 2016, the General Prosecutor of the Russian Federation began a series of inspections of the European University at Saint Petersburg. The basis for the conducting of these inspections was an official complaint by the deputy of the Legislative Assembly of St. Petersburg, Vitaly Milonov, to which other citizens’ complaints were added later.

The complaints contained false information (the University has no medical emergency services, scholarships are paid to students in foreign currency cash without any proper record, etc.), and information to be checked by federal regulatory authorities (for example, illegal reconstruction of University building or a violation of education legislation). All of them have been formulated to provide a legitimate reason for unscheduled inspections of EUSP by the prosecutor’s office and other regulatory authorities.

In July-August 2016, the EUSP was visited by eleven regulatory and controlling services. All inspections were unannounced. Some visits occurred more than once, that is, if the authority did not detect violations on first inspection, it would come again in 2-3 days with the task of inspecting again. As a result of these actions, the EUSP was either issued orders to eliminate violations or had fines imposed on it. . . . .

Violations that cost EUSP its license are of a formal nature:

  • In the opinion of Rosobrnadzor, EUSP Department of Political Science and Sociology lacks the necessary percentage of faculty whose primary occupation is practical work in the field they teach – both in political science and in sociology (two violations)
  • Faculty members who work on fixed-term employment contracts, do not have adequate certification
  • The University has no gym at its location specified in the license (the University rents one in a different building). (The argument about this fourth violation was rejected by the Dzerzhinsky district court of St. Petersburg on December 5 in connection with recent changes in legislation).

All of these points are based either on a particular interpretation of legal provisions, or on the internal Rosobrnadzor’s assessment of the degree to which their repeated instructions were fulfilled. The University was not aware of the arguments behind these 4 claims until the last moment (the explanatory document by Rosobrnadzor concerning the remaining 4 violations was distributed at the Government meeting on December 9, 2016).

On December 8, at a time when Rosobrnadzor issued an order to suspend the EUSP license, certain publications appeared in the Internet, spreading false and defamatory information about EUSP, University relations with foreign funds, its alleged work against the interests of Russia, etc. This information has nothing to do with the official reason for the suspension of the license. In fact, these publications aim at convincing the public that the regulatory authorities have been used for political purposes, as a tool of pressure on the University and an obstacle to its work.

However, in trying to discredit the EUSP, the organizers of this media campaign actually discredit the legitimate work of state authorities, whose task is to ensure the public interest – the safety of buildings, the quality of education, etc.

The inspections were prompted by a complaint against the university by Vitaly Milonov, a St. Petersburg politician known internationally for his role in promoting Russia’s much-maligned law banning “gay propaganda.”  A member of the Russian Parliament, Milonov has said he was passing along complaints of citizens and students, including a complaint about the teaching of gender studies at the university. “I personally find that disgusting, it’s fake studies, and it may well be illegal,” Milonov told The Christian Science Monitor. “But I’m not qualified to judge, so I handed it on to the proper authorities.”

EUSP Rector Oleg Kharkhordin acknowledged that his institution is “the biggest gender studies center in Russia. Most of the textbooks in the last 20 years are written by our professors.”

EUSP is also facing a parallel dispute over its building lease with the city government in St. Petersburg over allegations that it made certain alterations to the palace building it occupies without the approval of the historical commission.

On March 27, two American scholars, William G. Rosenberg of the University of Michigan and Harley Balzer of Georgetown University, President and Vice-President respectively of the Fund for the European University and members of the EUSP Board of Trustees, wrote in a letter to colleagues:

You may have heard from various sources that the European University at St. Petersburg has been fending off a series of legal assaults, apparently motivated by a combination of Russian nationalist sentiment and commercial interests. A court decision last month would suspend the University’s license, but included a one-month delay to permit an appeal. An appeals court has just ruled that further examination of the case is necessary, and should focus on substance rather than technicalities. The next court review is scheduled for April. The University’s license remains valid for now.

Many colleagues have asked what might be done to help the University. In the current environment, direct criticism of court decisions by foreign scholars could be used as evidence confirming that the European University should be viewed as a foreign agent.

But there are at least two things foreign colleagues may do that could help.

  • One is to send directly to the University your expressions of support. The University will be able to collect these, post them on its web site, and use them to make a strong case for its international reputation.  Please send the letters to:
  • The second, and perhaps more important way to help is to encourage your Russian colleagues to speak out in support of the European University. The involvement of the Russian scholarly community was of tremendous importance when the University was threatened by the fire inspectors several years ago. More recently, mobilization by Russian sociologists, including rivals VTsIOM and FOM, played an important role in the Levada Center being removed from the list of “foreign agents.”

Threats to shut down these two prestigious private institutions reflect a growing intolerance for independent thought not unrelated to events here in the U.S. The New York Times reported earlier this month that the election of Donald Trump had emboldeed opponents of Soros in Eastern Europe.  “I wouldn’t want to take this too far, but I’ve noticed a significant darkening of the tone since November 2016,” said Ignatieff. “Before that relations were sunnier; after that they got darker. I think the government has had this in mind for a long time and thinks it’s going to get a green light from certain people.”


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4 thoughts on “Academic Freedom Imperiled in Hungary, Russia

  1. Thank you for standing up for academic freedom at this Soros-funded institution, as you should. I continue to be alarmed though by the AAUP’s recent hostility to academic freedom at universities in the U.S. when the donor is not Soros but rather one of the Koch brothers. Why not take a stand for academic freedom for all faculty, regardless of their donor’s ideology?

  2. Pingback: Ugandan Scholar Arrested for Advocacy | ACADEME BLOG

  3. Pingback: Budapest Protesters Defend Central European University | ACADEME BLOG

  4. Pingback: St. Petersburg’s European University Faces Closure | ACADEME BLOG

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