Central European University, one of the most important institutions of higher education in Europe, is currently being threatened by the Hungarian government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his nationalist-populist FIDESZ party. CEU, founded in 1991 during the early phases of the post-Communist transition, is officially registered and accredited in New York as well as in Hungary. The new legislation proposed by FIDESZ will impose burdensome requirements on CEU that are justified on the grounds that it is a “foreign university.” Only if it complies with these impossible conditions, which include opening a campus in New York within a year, will CEU be permitted to remain open as Hungary’s premiere university. Otherwise it will be forced to close, in violation of Hungarian law.
CEU, founded by the Soros Foundation, is a Hungarian institution, located in Budapest, that employs and educates many Hungarians. It is also a European university and indeed a cosmopolitan center of higher learning and education. Since its inception, it has been emphatically committed to universalist values of scholarship and free inquiry; the promotion of a genuinely diverse faculty and student body that is welcoming toward many colleagues and guests from all parts of the world; and the basic principles of an open society. In short, it is a thoroughly modern university, linked to other modern universities in a global republic of letters that knows no national or geographical boundaries. It epitomizes openness.
By threatening CEU, the new legislation threatens academic freedom and intellectual and political pluralism in Hungary, in Europe, and indeed throughout the world.
At this moment, the most important thing for scholars, teachers, intellectuals, and concerned citizens to do is to express their support for CEU.
At the same time, what is going on with CEU is not an isolated incident, nor is it merely an “academic” matter — though it is a vital matter of academic freedom — and it needs to be understood as part of the broader effort of Viktor Orban, in league with other similarly-inclined leaders, to reject Western liberal democracy in favor of a self-described “illiberal democracy.”
Orban made this clear in a widely-quoted July 2014 speech: “Today, the stars of international analyses are Singapore, China, India, Turkey, Russia. And I believe that our political community rightly anticipated this challenge… We are searching for (and we are doing our best to find, ways of parting with Western European dogmas, making ourselves independent from them) the form of organizing a community, that is capable of making us competitive in this great world-race… In order to be able to do this… we needed to courageously state a sentence, …considered to be a sacrilege in the liberal world order. We needed to state that a democracy is not necessarily liberal. Just because something is not liberal, it still can be a democracy. Moreover, it could be and needed to be expressed, that probably societies founded upon the principle of the liberal way to organize a state will not be able to sustain their world-competitiveness in the following years, and more likely they will suffer a setback, unless they will be able to substantially reform themselves… we have to abandon liberal methods and principles of organizing a society, as well as the liberal way to look at the world… The Hungarian nation is not a simple sum of individuals, but a community that needs to be organized, strengthened and developed, and in this sense, the new state that we are building is an illiberal state, a non-liberal state.”
Orban’s “illiberal democracy” is strongly nationalist, emphatically antiliberal, and hostile to immigration and to “foreigners” of different kinds — his program is a version of “Making Hungary great again for Hungarians.” Universalist concerns about human rights, and transnational organizations committed to human rights, are anathema to Orban. Resistance to what Orban considers “outside interference”– whether by NGOs or by the EU and its expectation that member states respect civil autonomy and transparency — has long been a hallmark of his populist appeal.
Like Vladimir Putin, Raynep Erdogan, and other authoritarian rulers deploying a populist rhetoric, Orban has for many years sought to hamper the operation of liberal civil society institutions with links to transnational NGOs and foundations and to Western governments. His primary targets have included a number of organizations supported by the Soros Foundation. In mid-January a Fidesz party deputy singled out three Soros-funded NGOs — the Helsinki Committee, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union TASZ, and Transparency International — to be “swept out” of Hungary. Orban spokesman Zoltan Kovacs explained that these groups represent a threat to the “national sovereignty” of Hungary, which has been subjected to “unfounded accusations about transparency and corruption… We believe that by getting rid of these elements of the political argumentation, it is going to be easier.” Orban, who has erected a fence at the Hungarian border to keep out immigrants, has employed rhetoric similar to Donald Trump’s rhetoric about the need for a wall to keep out “rapists and drug dealers.” And, like Trump, he has insinuated that liberals are responsible for endangering the safety of citizens: “Hungary cannot afford to allow organizations that remain in the shadows — not declaring who they receive their money from and for what purposes — to continuously encourage migrants to break Hungarian law to somehow get into the country,” said Orbán in a radio address on February 24, adding that “by doing so, international organizations which are primarily linked to George Soros have overstepped a line.” In this effort to crack down on civil society institutions and to demonize the Soros connection, Orban has a strong ally in Vladimir Putin and in Russia’s state-sponsored media outlet RT, whose coverage of Hungarian politics is epitomized by this headline from January 30: “Soros-funded NGOs aim to bring down Hungarian government — foreign minister to RT.”
The current attack on CEU needs to be understood in this broader context. What is at stake is the fate of a superb university, but also the fate of an autonomous civil society in Hungary, and indeed the very future of liberal democracy in Europe. CEU is not a “foreign” entity to Hungary. It employs Hungarian faculty and staff, educates Hungarian students, participates actively in the broader world of Hungarian higher education, and contributes greatly to the cultural and intellectual life of Hungarian society. At the same time, CEU is a cosmopolitan institution that stands for intellectual openness; promotes a vigorous intellectual public sphere through CEU press and through the activities of its faculty and students; and relies on a dense network of contacts with scholars and universities the world over. Such a worldly institution is perceived as threatening by a political party intent on closing borders and enforcing a new isolationism. And such an intellectually vibrant institution is perceived as threatening by a regime intent on instituting a new “illiberal” order.
Central European University is a symbol of the cultural vitality and intellectual pluralism of Hungarian society and of the indivisibility of freedom.
Those of us who stand with CEU stand with the faculty, staff, and students of a world class university that contributes immeasurably to higher learning.
We also stand with all of those Hungarians who wish to live in a free society.