BY JOAN W. SCOTT
On Tuesday, Nov 27, I joined a group of protestors outside the Parliament, on Kossuth Square in Budapest. There, a coalition of students denouncing “attacks on academic freedom” had convened a week-long Open University (Szabad Egyetem). The protest was taking place in three small white tents, dwarfed by the towering Parliament building—it felt a bit like David and Goliath. The tents, in which the students stay all night, rotating shifts, were equipped with heaters; the largest of them had chairs and benches, with a long table at the front for the speakers who came to address them. I had agreed to talk about threats to academic freedom in the U.S. There was a schedule announcing each day’s discussions, musical performances, and cultural events—it reminded me of nothing so much as the teach-ins organized in the 1960’s to protest the Vietnam War. Faculty and students had joined together (now as then) to produce knowledge as a form of political protest.
The experience was inspiring. On a chilly, wet, gray day, it was possible to feel hope, if not for a sudden transformation of the Orban government—which is systematically attempting to dismantle the institutions of democracy (rewriting the Constitution, effectively imposing one-party rule, taking over the media, attacking universities and scholars whose work is considered dangerously subversive)—then for the determination and courage of these protestors to resist authoritarian rule.
Students, faculty, and their supporters crowded into the tent and listened attentively, nodding, frowning. A woman from India reported on struggles at Jawaharlal Nehru University; someone from Brazil recounted what was happening there; an Englishwoman asked some pointed questions about our motivation to act in the face of repressive power; and, of course, Hungarian university members described what was happening here.
The Orban government’s attack on higher education is multi-pronged and, in all cases, it seeks to undermine the autonomy of the university. At Eötvös Lorand University (ELTE) (one of the country’s oldest and largest) there have been dramatic cuts in financial support and the abolition of degrees in gender studies. Gender is a primary target of attack: the Deputy Prime Minister has declared that gender studies has “no business in universities” because “it is an ideology, not a science.” Another government official voiced his opposition to gender studies (and his nostalgia for a more patriarchal past) this way: “when our girls give birth to our grandchildren, we want them to regard it as the defining moment of their self-realization.” Corvinus University has been designated a model for the privatizing of academic instruction; in the future it will depend on tuition (thereby raising costs for students) and philanthropy to support it. Funding for the Hungarian Academy of Sciences is being taken over by the Ministry of Innovation and Technology which will decide what research merits support. Already those working on “liberal topics” (gender, LGBT rights, migration) have been denounced in a pro-government magazine, with their names and—and in some cases—photographs included in the article. A political test has replaced a scholarly test as the measure of academic legitimacy. A full assault is underway on what can count as acceptable scholarship.
The case of the Central European University (CEU) is the oddest and most troubling. CEU was established as a graduate institution in 1991 with funding from the Open Society Foundation. Its creator was George Soros, a Hungarian Jew who wanted to bring to this former Soviet bloc country a model for democratic education. The attack on CEU seems very specific, aimed at exactly what that university has brought to the region of Central Europe in the post-communist era: a model of democratic higher education, unconstrained by state ideology or political orthodoxy. It is exactly for that reason that Orban wants to be rid of it: it represents an ongoing threat to his way of doing things, training students to think for themselves, to learn what is meant by the rule of law, to pursue knowledge for some notion of improving the common good.
CEU is chartered in the state of New York; its graduates receive both American and Hungarian degrees. In its long history in Budapest, it has trained professionals and policy-makers; it has attracted students from all over the world, many seeking refuge from wars in the region and beyond. Students from enemy countries (for example, Serbia and Croatia, the US and Afghanistan…) have become friends and sometimes even married—defying the boundaries and the violence of ethno-nationalism. A program to bring refugee scholars from Syria was ended by the government’s threats to levy extraordinary taxes on their presence at the university. The CEU has provided living proof of the possibilities of a genuine internationalism. It has also been an important contributor to the economic well-being of Budapest, housing many students and employing large numbers of staff as well as faculty in the city.
When the Orban government took power, the CEU became a particular target of his outrage. It is interesting to note that Victor Orban, with aspirations to rise above his rural origins, was supported by a Soros fellowship to Oxford in the 1980’s. He was then nominally a socialist. Some have speculated that, in addition to a sheer lust for power, Orban is also driven by a deeply Oedipal rage. There is also the “Trump factor” which gives implicit, when not explicit, support to rulers of the Orban ilk. With another person in the White House, people here speculate, Orban might be more restrained in his desire to be rid of CEU.
In April 2017, Orban had his parliament quickly pass a bill that was clearly aimed only at CEU: it required foreign universities in Hungary to have a campus and to offer courses in their home countries. To accommodate the law, CEU established an academic program at Bard College in NY. Endless negotiations followed. There were ministerial visits to Bard, discussions between representatives of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Orban’s representatives. There was even an agreement drawn up accepting the Bard arrangement, that Orban has consistently refused to sign, leaving CEU uncertain about its future and, indeed, beginning to plan a move to Vienna. The move to Vienna will not only involve tremendous costs, but it will significantly change the culture of the university, abandoning staff and faculty who have nurtured the place since its beginnings and who cannot uproot from Budapest. Vienna will mean higher costs of living for prospective students, and abandoning an infrastructure (renovated buildings, library, offices, classrooms) that will be difficult to replicate. In fact, most faculty and especially the students do not want to move, because they feel that teaching and studying in Budapest have a special significance—an ethical and existential component tied to this place that cannot be reproduced in Vienna.
When confronted with their refusal to sign off on the agreement, the Hungarian authorities have engaged in all manner of delay and obfuscation, including accusing the Americans of lying. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, apparently referring to its verification visit to Bard, denounced the agreement in these terms: “The Government is fully aware that the ‘Soros university’ did not previously perform education activities in the United States; the institution’s American ‘campus’ is a wooden shed on the territory of Bard College, which also has ties to George Soros, but its courses are not taught there. What is occurring now is a Soros-style bluff and the latest step in the generation of political hysteria.” It is interesting to note that the reference is never to CEU, but to “Soros university” (evoking all the anti-Semitic venom that has attached to the philanthropist’s name) and that the charge of “political hysteria” is a way of displacing Orban’s hysteria onto CEU’s defense of academic freedom.
The Minister’s statement also contradicts the amendment of the Hungarian higher education law that specifies that it is up to the authorities of the host country, in this case New York State, to authenticate lawful and proper academic activity. CEU Rector Michael Ignatieff has pointed out that according to its own law, it is not up to the Hungarian Ministry to decide or indeed judge whether and how CEU teaches in the state of New York.
To date, there has been no reply from the New York state authorities about this misrepresentation of the Bard/CEU arrangement and its patent violation of Hungary’s own education law. At the very least there should be a reply; Orban has attacked their veracity and credibility, as well as the sovereignty of the state of New York. I’m sending the following letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo and his Commissioner of Education, Mary Ellen Elia, to urge them to publicly correct the record that the Hungarian authorities have so distorted, and to press for CEU’s right to stay in Budapest, where it belongs. I urge you to either send one of your own letters or to sign this one and send it along, with a copy to Leon Botstein, President of Bard College and Chair of the CEU Board.
Governor Andrew Cuomo
NYS State Capitol Building
Albany, NY 12224
Commissioner Mary Ellen Elia
New York State Education Building
89 Washington Avenue
Albany, NY 12234
I am writing to urge you to publicly correct the record on the affiliation between Bard College and the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest, Hungary. Since 2017, Hungarian law has required that a foreign-accredited private university have a campus in its home country. As your offices have certified, Bard College is that campus for CEU. The Hungarian officials have rejected that reality in these terms: “The Government is fully aware that the ‘Soros university’ did not previously perform education activities in the United States; the institution’s American ‘campus’ is a wooden shed on the territory of Bard College, which also has ties to George Soros, but its courses are not taught there. What is occurring now is a Soros-style bluff and the latest stop in the generation of political hysteria.”
This statement constitutes an assault on the processes that your offices have conducted, an assault that should not be allowed to stand. It also violates the terms of the amendment to Hungarian education law that specifies that it is up to the authorities of the host country, in this case New York State, to authenticate lawful and proper academic activity. CEU Rector, Michael Ignatieff, has pointed out that according to its own law, it is not up to the Hungarian Ministry to decide, or indeed judge, whether and how CEU teaches in the state of New York.
There must be a public statement from you denying these false accusations. It will not only attest to the integrity of your offices, but it may also help in the CEU’s battle to remain in Budapest, where it was founded and where it belongs.
cc: Leon Botstein
President, Bard College
Chair, CEU Board of Trustees
30 Campus Road
Annandale-on Hudson, NY 12504