Central European University in Peril
April 5, 2017 5:49 AM   Subscribe

Central European University, an English-language postgraduate institution in Budapest that offers degrees that are accredited in both Hungary and the state of New York, is threatened with closure by a new law passed by the Hungarian parliament that imposes overly (and intentionally) onerous requirements on the CEU for its continued ability to enroll students.

Founded after the fall of the communist bloc in 1991, the university was created in an attempt to foster cooperation between fledgling democracies in Central Europe. CEU was originally based in Prague but forced to leave that city in 1993 under pressure from then Czech prime minister Václav Klaus. (Extended discussion: PDF)

The Hungarian right wing (previously on MetaFilter: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7) has particular animus toward CEU because of the role of George Soros and his Open Society Foundation in the founding and continued guidance of the institution. Viktor Orbán, the current prime minister of Hungary, has publicly noted his intention of making Hungary an “illiberal democracy.” (1, 2)

The Hungarian Spectrum, an excellent blog about Hungarian politics and society, has more about the ideological nature of opposition to the CEU, a university that would appear to be a major success story for Hungarian intellectual life.

The decision has met with massive protest, and has elicited deep unease from from the international academic community. (For example: 1, 2, 3, 4). The current rector of the university, Canadian Liberal politician and academic Michael Ignatieff, is looking for support to save the institution under his care.

For those looking to support the university, the CEU has a central web page with resources.
posted by dhens (18 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

Thanks so much for this. I've heard rumblings about this situation but haven't really been able to get a handle on what's going on.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:21 AM on April 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

From the Hungarian Spectrum link:

Just today we heard that Réka Szemerkényi, the Hungarian ambassador in Washington, will be recalled soon. 24.hu learned from diplomatic sources that the Hungarian government is dissatisfied with Szemerkényi’s performance because she didn’t manage to convince the State Department of the legitimate and non-discriminatory nature of the legislation regarding Central European University. We don’t yet have confirmation of these reports. When ATV’s journalist asked [Prime Minister] Viktor Orbán whether it is true that Szemerkényi will be recalled, he answered: “I don’t handle entanglements with women” (nőügyekkel nem foglalkozom). The crudity of the man never ceases to amaze me.

posted by showbiz_liz at 6:24 AM on April 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

One of the questions that average Hungarians are asking about this is, "what is Prime Minister Orban trying to distract people from?" Some theories that I've heard on the ground are more along the lines that there will be an election next year and Orban wants to swing even more right to capture votes from the ultra-nationalistic Jobbik party. Interestingly, even Jobbik has said that the anti-CEU legislation is too radical. It seems that Jobbik is simultaneously trying to reinvent itself as an opposition party.

Meanwhile, Orban is rounding up legal asylum seekers and putting them in concentration camps. Last year he was positing about having work camps instead. A lot of students here really are concerned with human rights. The Human Rights law program is super intensive and other progressive areas of academia are also very strong at CEU, such as Nationalism and Gender Studies. Which is all to say, CEU students are pretty much too busy studying to be a real threat to Orban's vision of an illiberal Hungary, but their areas of study are pretty perfect for him to pander to the right wing for votes. He's mostly picked on the Gender Studies group for probably the same reason that Trump voters complain about Social Justice Warriors.

I'm studying at CEU because I could get an American masters degree at an international university at an affordable price in a city with a low cost of living. Students here are from over 100 countries and CEU does an admirable job in recruiting and funding students from countries where democratic, open society values are much needed. The conspiracy theory that Soros uses the University for some evil scheme or another is ridiculous. His picture is on the wall in the entrance and that's pretty much where his day-to-day involvement ends. CEU has the same leadership structure as any other US university: trustees and faculty.

Since CEU is a US accredited institution, adding in a word about CEU to your calls to senators would be very beneficial. The alumni group in NY, where CEU is accredited, has been calling Senators Gillibrand and Schumer. Anyone living in the EU could also help support CEU by contacting their EU parliament reps.

I personally believe that Trump's most dedicated supporters would love to see illiberal values imported into the US. Hungary just seems to be ahead of the curve.
posted by Skwirl at 6:28 AM on April 5, 2017 [23 favorites]

I personally believe that Trump's most dedicated supporters would love to see illiberal values imported into the US.

I'm pretty sure they're already here and gaining momentum.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:52 AM on April 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

Part of me thinks they should just up sticks and relocate. There's plenty of places that would like to have them. Frankly, CEU is the only high-quality tertiary educational institute in Hungary (except maybe Semmelweis and that's a medical school). ELTE? Corvinus? Don't make me laugh. Talk about shooting themselves in the foot.
posted by orrnyereg at 8:07 AM on April 5, 2017

I have two friends on faculty there. They're pretty international and easily able to job hop as are most of CEU's faculty. The people who signed on there were academic risk takers to start with and generally recruited from at least the top half of their fields.

So I worry less about the university and faculty and more for Hungary. Going after a university like this is a political tipping point.
posted by srboisvert at 8:37 AM on April 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

I taught one summer at the CEU back in 1997. I was an American grad student glad to have the chance to meet academics from Eastern Europe who were all way, way better trained in math and physics than me. All I had to offer was some computer expertise and fluency with the then-new Internet. It was a good exchange, particularly for me.

Even then CEU was controversial. The CEU's goal was to bring American and Western European open society thinking to Eastern Europe. For 50-100 years all the academics in the former Soviet Union were Marxist. Marxist economics, Marxist philosophy, Marxist political science. CEU was created to bring some diversity of social science thought to Hungary, Czech, etc. Free market economics, free society politics, the idea of an open marketplace of ideas.

Every criticism I've ever seen against CEU has a strong tone of anti-Semitism. Specifically aimed at Soros, which as Skwirl says is pretty odd given that Soros is so hands off with the university. Also in no way is CEU a Jewish organization, but anti-Semitism is not a rational force. I think Skwirl is right that this is a political push against liberalism. CEU represents an open and free society and Orban does not believe in that ideal.
posted by Nelson at 8:39 AM on April 5, 2017 [3 favorites]

While we are at shooting yourself in the foot: the pocket dictator is positing himself as the defender of the Hungarian *nation* including ethnic Hungarians in the neighboring countries. Guess what: Victor Ponta is already proposing a similar law against hungarian universities in Romania.

Unfortunately, for the hard-core fidesz voters the reality distortion field is so strong that they shrug this off as well. It doesn't matter if even hungarian writers closer to the government (or their alleged "conservative" values) are petitioning against this law saying that it's hungarians who'll be "the Soros" in Romania [in hungarian] - it doesn't matter. They don't read even their "own" writers who are saying something against the party line. Disillusioned ex-fidesz politicians warning against brainwashing, drawing comparisons to the times before WWII? "They deserted to the enemy, were traitors all along."

It's terrible, really.
posted by kmt at 8:42 AM on April 5, 2017 [3 favorites]

Part of me thinks they should just up sticks and relocate.

The Flying University offers a couple of glorious precedents, but it's still a lot to ask.
posted by clew at 12:35 PM on April 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

CEU is currently smack dab in the middle of a 34 million euro campus renovation, which climaxed in the opening of two ultramodern new buildings this year where most of school life now takes place. Picking up sticks would have a serious effect on the remaining endowment and would be a lot of upheaval for students and faculty. Soros isn't getting any younger and had some big financial losses in the past year, so I'm not convinced that the school is in a good position to rebuild in another country and not end up shrinking in the process. There are weekend programs for working Hungarians to get degrees, too, and they can't pick up and move either.

Not to mention, if your mission is open society, the least open, and failing fast, country in the EU is a heck of a classroom.
posted by Skwirl at 2:24 PM on April 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

So, when does this law take effect? I'll be in Europe in the first week of May, and would like to drop by a public lecture at CEU, if it's still open.
posted by Mr. Excellent at 4:40 PM on April 5, 2017

Nevermind, read the links - the bill takes effect January 1, 2018. Apologies, MeFites!
posted by Mr. Excellent at 4:51 PM on April 5, 2017

Some testimonials (1, 2) from current students of the CEU.

Also, from this article about German criticism of the Orbán government's policy toward CEU:

The Hungarian government denies that it’s targeting CEU and says it’s ready to discuss the case with the U.S. “George Soros’s lies can even mislead the German government,” the MTI newswire quoted Hungarian government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs as saying.

Zoltán Kovács has an MA and a PhD in History... from CEU.
posted by dhens at 10:07 PM on April 5, 2017

Oh great, now there are reports of uniformed policeman showing up at the flats of the protest organizers. All the while the Budapest police issued a statement that at the given there addresses there were no police operations. source (in hungarian)
posted by kmt at 2:50 AM on April 6, 2017

The Hungarian president has signed the bill into law. (I wish that this article did not put such emphasis on the CEU being founded by Soros.)
posted by dhens at 10:59 AM on April 10, 2017

Hardly a surprise, Ader's a good soldier and will do as he's told. It will be interesting to see whether the group that got the government to drop the Olympics bid will get involved.
posted by orrnyereg at 11:11 AM on April 10, 2017

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