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What Central European University Means for Free Education and Democracy

by Andra Matzal

Published on 4 aprilie 2017

Exactly one week ago, the Hungarian government submitted a bill to Parliament that would basically make it impossible for Central European University (CEU) to operate in Budapest. CEU is a private American-Hungarian higher education institution, and since 1991, when it was founded by the American philantropist George Soros, it has provided graduate programs for thousands of students all around the world. A few years ago, I would have dismissed the idea that such a bill might pe adopted as sheer nonsense. But after 2016 and its legacy in worldwide politics, after witnessing nationalism and populism pop up in more and more spots on the map, dismissiveness is no longer an option. Later edit: While I was writing these words, the Hungarian Parliament approved the bill meant to  tighten the state control over foreign universities in Hungary and, by consequence, to force CEU out of Budapest.

Why is the threat to CEU so important, that thousands of people protested against it on Sunday, in the heart of Budapest against it; that almost 40.000 people have signed a petition to support the university; and that countless international students, graduates, and academics have expressed their solidarity with CEU? First of all, because this is one of the top universities today and one of the best higher education institutions in Central-Eastern Europe. Secondly, because in a democratic society education can only make sense if it has autonomy. As Michael Ignatieff, the rector of CEU told the New York Times, „if the bill passes, it would mark the first time that a member of the European Union dared to legislate an attack on the academic freedom of a university”. Thirdly, because CEU stands for all the values that help Europe keep extremism at bay. At least for a while.

A few days ago, the president of the leading party in Romania was blaming George Soros on TV for the poor development of the country after the Revolution in 1989. During the massive anti-corruption protests that took place in Romania earlier this year, politicians in power and their media channels accused Soros of financing the protesters. Their dogs, too. As a citizen of a country where the values of an open society are used by populist parties as scapegoats for their own failure, or to fuel discontent and panic among their voters, witnessing the attack of the Hungarian government on CEU is a glimpse of a very plausible future. I asked eight CEU graduates to remind us why keeping political control away from this university is vital - not only for the freedom of education, but also for the status of what we call democracy.

CEU is naturally cosmopolitan, and it's that cosmopolitanism that Mr. Orban attacks.

Hanna Nikkanen

(Investigative reporter, Visiting professor of journalism, University of Tampere, Finland, Co-founder Long Play)

These days, very few meaningful things can be said about the media or politics from a strictly national point of view. No country exists in a vacuum, and whatever happens, there is a precedent somewhere. It'd be a strange, self-imposed case of partial blindness to talk about the Le Pen campaign and pretend that Brexit and Trump did not happen, or to talk about Poland's media bill as if Hungary did not exist.

CEU has this open, multidisciplinary approach to journalism, law, human rights and technology that I haven't found elsewhere in Europe. CEU's summer schools have been a lifeline for a journalist with academic tendencies and a troubled love for the internet.

CEU is naturally cosmopolitan, and it's that cosmopolitanism that Mr. Orban attacks.

Of course, Mr. Orban himself is no stranger to the international exchange of ideas: his "illiberal democracy" is a transnational idea, memetically spread and financially tethered across national borders, pretending to be loyal to one nation state.

CEU represents an in-your-face cosmopolitanism that is precisely what academia needs at this time. Our markets already are global, our communication technologies are global, and the environmental threats facing our civilization are planetary.

CEU exists in contrast to Fidesz's xenophobic, racist, and ultimately fascist agenda.

Jack Brezny

(CEU graduate, Minnesota, USA)

To me, the beauty of CEU is that it offered me an environment in which I was able to make a multitude of connections and friendships, most of which persist to this day, nearly four years after my graduation. I believe that in 2013, students from 86 different countries comprised my graduating class. Throughout my studies, and since, I was able to have in-depth conversations and experiences with an incredibly wide array of people, none of whom I would have known if not for CEU as a focal meeting point. I know that the concept of multiculturalism is often criticized within academia, but for lack of a better word, and time, my experience at CEU was indeed multicultural.

I don't think that Fidesz's attack on CEU can be understood outside the framework of fascism. It is ruled by a populist autocrat, who has been repeatedly criticized by the EU for undermining the democratic process. The leftist rhetoric right now is that Fidesz want to destroy the autonomy of Hungary's higher education system, and I think that is precisely what we are seeing. Students from other universities around Budapest, like Corvinus, have protested with those from CEU against Fidesz's bill, worrying that their own colleges and universities might be targeted next. I think it's no accident that this particular bill targets CEU specifically. As a haven for multiculturalism, free-thinking, and leftist politics, CEU exists in contrast to Fidesz's xenophobic, racist, and ultimately fascist agenda.

In the bigger picture of Fidesz's growing rule, I think what we are seeing right now is an administration testing the limits of its power. Like a medieval general probing the battle lines of his enemy for weaknesses, Orban seems to be trying to find out just how far he can spread the tentacles of his agenda before being met with too much resistance at once.

I just read that Fidesz approved a fast-track vote on this bill, which will be held before noon on Tuesday. To me, it is clear that they seek to undermine the will of those thousands - nay, millions - who are opposed to it both nationwide and globally, from undergraduate students, to Nobel laureates, to people who simply see the value of autonomy in education. Above all, I believe that Fidesz does not want to give the left-wing time to properly organize themselves against this bill, and so it will stab its enemies in the back before they even have time to pick up a sword. What that says about democracy in Hungary is deeply disconcerting.

Indeed, I stand with CEU and I am pleased to have seen such an amazing turnout at the protest in Budapest on Sunday. But "standing with CEU" is not enough. The Hungarian left must create a far more encompassing political banner if it wishes to resist Fidesz's tyranny in the future. The fight for CEU cannot be isolated to only that, as such. Let it be the rallying call for the fight against Fidesz and its fascist agenda, but let it also be a part of a larger resistance, one which is deeply needed in Hungary right now.

Hungary needs CEU. Not only because it provides billions of forint in taxes to the state each year, or because it provides, and has provided, thousands of students with a quality education. Hungary needs CEU because it has become a symbol of resistance, autonomy, and free-thinking. If the Fidesz regime does pass its bill tomorrow, and CEU is forced to leave the country, I only hope that the Hungarian left can use the tragedy to fuel its fight against fascism. The fight for CEU should not be a rallying call to protect what is at stake in Hungary, but a wake-up call to arms. It's time to fight back.

CEU is not George Soros’ personal instrument.

Monica Stroe

(Anthropologist, Lecturer at National University for Political Studies and Public Administration, Bucharest, Romania)

In 2008 I graduated an MA program in Nationalism Studies, which provided a critical and multidisciplinary perspective upon nationalism, racism and national identities, and the academic experience I gained at CEU is to be found in the way I am now teaching and writing. For Budapest and for the educational context in the region, as far as social sciences and humanities are concerned, it is a breath of fresh air: it has a open course program for refugees, scholarships for Roma students and Syrian citizens, academic programs for gender studies, nationalism studies, human rights, history and anthropology, and it is the CEU students that are mostly taking the streets of Budapest in defence of refugee and LGBT rights.

It does not come as a surprise that a government conducting a policy based on building walls and spreading fear should try to shut down an institution where hundreds of Hungarian students and over one thousand foreign students learn about the ethnicization of poverty, antisemitism, ethnocentrism, identity politics, migration, minorities rights, asylum and refugees.

I think the kind of measures the government made use of for closing down the university (the ones referred to in the text of the bill) are a proof of the xenophobic populism of this initiative: banning non-EU citizens from teaching, mandatory translation of the name of the institution into Hungarian, a greater control over the curriculum.

CEU is not George Soros’ personal instrument, but (still) a space for academic freedom that belongs to its students, graduates and professors.

My academic career was definitely kick-started by the CEU.

Siddharth Chadha

(PhD Informatics and Media, Uppsala University, Sweden)

I attended the Summer School course titled Beyond The Rumor Mill at Central European University in 2009. As a student from a developing country (India), this was my first experience of being at an international university – which has had a remarkable impact on my personal and professional life. Not only did the course enrich my skills during the program, I was welcomed into an international academic community. I have since completed a Masters in Philosophy and an M.Phil in Political Philosophy at Panjab University, Chandigarh, India. I am currently pursuing a PhD in Media and Communication Studies at Uppsala University, Sweden. My academic career was definitely kick-started by the CEU. Moreover, the professional contacts that I made during my time in Budapest, still continue to develop – with me having collaborated with several co-participants of the school after the course was over.

It would be a shame, were CEU forced to shift base out of Budapest, its natural habitat with its focus on Central and Eastern Europe. Many students from the world over, would not only miss out on the opportunity of a wonderful and enriching academic experience – they would also lose on the opportunity to connect with this important European region.

The increasingly illiberal Hungarian government is seeking to purge an academic institution it regards as an ideological enemy.

Adrian Deoancă

(Graduate Student Instructor, University of Michigan, USA) 

On the morning I moved into the CEU ‘dorm’, in the fall of 2007, my jaw dropped. Instead of entering some sort of dump, I wound up in a three-star hotel, whose vest-donning receptionist handed me an access card. The card opened a room with fresh sheets every week, a bed, a desk, and a lamp where I could let loose like all geeks, reading and writing till dawn. But, most importantly, I had my own bathroom, with a shower and a john. ALL MINE! And all for free. 

It sounds like a kitsch tale about Romanians, mouth agape at the mall abroad, I know. So what? The truth is that when I set my mind to going abroad for my Master’s, I kind of couldn’t give a hoot about learning. I left out of hatred, I was running away from squalor. I’d shared a five-bed room in a ten-storey dorm in Cluj, Romania for four years. The place had a cool poetry about it, Vakulovski paints it well in his novel Pizdeț, but after a while, the dirt, stench, ruckus and forced cohabitation, much like prison, triggered your neuroses.

Once released from the squalor, it’s as if my appetite to study returned. Dialectics agrees with you more if you’ve slept well, have the right books to read, and partners for debate.  At CEU, we had professors from all over the place, hordes of classmates from the East, and a bunch of westerners studying nationalism just like me, history, gender studies, or anthropology – great material for drunken sparring practice on Kant’s perpetual peace. I borrowed so many ideas from the people I got wasted with over the course of one year that, instead of embracing CEU’s enthusiastic liberalism, I wound up – the devil only knows how – flirting (rather apathetically, to be fair), with a sort of theoretical communism, like an academic deviant.

When I was an undergrad and crossed paths with parades held by the wretches in the Hungarian Guard, I didn’t care—I found them exotic, laughable, and outmoded. I would never have thought that their ideas will be accommodated by the state policies of a mainstream party like Fidesz. The Parliament of Orban’s Hungary is now passing a targeted law that makes CEU’s survival in Budapest unlikely. The increasingly illiberal Hungarian government is seeking to purge an academic institution it regards as an ideological enemy. Prime-minister Orban is now achieving something similar to what Trump wants – at the level of discourse for the time being – in the war against “cultural Marxism”.

The ideology of the Popperian open society at CEU has its faults (technocratic and neoliberal tendencies, an obsession with rationalism), but if the alternative is poorly concealed fascism, I fear I might end up missing neoliberalism. Without CEU, fewer broke-ass eastern students will get the opportunity to live in a dorm room with its own bathroom and earn a degree that will lead them to ever bigger universities, as I was lucky enough to do. Without a space that’s generous about the plurality and ambivalence of ideas, fewer of them will wind up obsessively contradicting all sorts of peers and deviating ideologically. And that’s ominous for us all, because universities are keen on shaping polemical deviants—apostles of faith and tradition are always aplenty as is. 

The problems the world is facing today cannot be resolved by retreating behind walls.

Matthew MacLellan

(PhD Political Studies/Cultural Studies, Mount Saint Vincent University, Nova Scotia, Canada)

While it’s always distressing to hear about the closure of a university, the government of Hungary’s decision to close the CEU is especially worrisome, given the prominence of the CEU as one of the premier “crossroads” universities in Europe today. We are in the midst of a troubling and even dangerous global transformation in which people of all walks of life increasingly prefer the surety of self-referential media and informational bubbles, while national governments across the world are withdrawing behind political, economic, and cultural barriers instead of actively participating in global society.

The prominence of these disturbing trends is why we need institutions like the CEU more than ever. The problems the world is facing today cannot be resolved by retreating behind walls. The only way to effectively deal with the multiple crises that impact us all is to create better and more opportunities for cross-cultural dialogue. As a graduate of the CEU’s summer program, I am appalled that the government of Hungary has decided to close such a prominent and important educational institution. My time at the CEU was one of the rare occasions in academic life in which I was able to engage in meaningful and illuminating discussion with students and scholars from across world. By bringing students and scholars from all over the world to meet in Budapest, my experience at the CEU was not only invaluable for my personal academic development, but it showed how important cross-cultural institutions truly are for maintaining the social, cultural, and intellectual vibrancy of a city. Closing the CEU is a major loss for Budapest and Hungary, and a major loss to all those students and scholars who will never experience the increasingly important cross-cultural and interdisciplinary education the CEU offers.  

It is through us that more and more open societies will appear and develop.

Raluca Iacob

(President of MetruCub - Resources for Culture)

I ended my MA in Public Policy at CEU in 2011. At that time, it was the only European university that was offering cultural policy specialisation as part of a public policy Master program. It managed to teach us how to place culture within society, how to advocate for our legitimacy and our important role for democracy, development, competitiveness and quality education.

All the programs not only welcomed, but actively encouraged diversity in all its forms. We were approx 40, coming from more than 20 countries from all over the world. Our LGBT colleagues were passionate about talking about their identity and the university welcomed and supported them, as did those that wanted to help the many homeless people in Budapest, or those that cared about protecting the environment and were constantly suggesting different activities.

I particularly remember one conference where the main guest was the Dalai Lama, and the Auditorium was full and the talks were intense and meaningful, even when put in very simple words. I also recall the gratitude I felt for my professors that were encouraging us to come and talk about the grading of a paper. I remember the Center for Academic Writing, that was so helpful, that I still do not understand why we cannot have in Romania something similar, that would highly improve our academic rigor, research designs and writing skills. I love how our professors had a rich professional life outside their teaching and that they were referring to it, inviting us to some of their events or doing classes outside of CEU, for example in famous cafes where Hungarian intellectuals used to meet and discuss politics.

I feel privileged to have taken part in an MA at CEU. The possibility of me being there was thanks to the policy of the university to grant full or partial scholarships to many students from CEE region and other parts of the world. That did not mean that we were treated as second-class students, on the contrary. I felt that the mission of the university was accomplished via us; that it is us, coming from countries in transition, in need of reform and a strong civil society, that are the main beneficiaries, it is through us that more and more open societies will appear and develop. That mission is nowadays even more needed to be achieved.  

If CEU falls, let it be a sacrifice that unmasks the Orbans of Europe for the dictators they are.

Martin Šik

(CEU graduate in Public Policy, Prague, Czech Republic)

Central European University, my alma mater, is under threat. I am not much of an activist, but now is no time to stand on the sidelines. Even if there is very little I can actually do to prevent what seems to be inevitable, I still want to do my part by sharing my experiences form CEU.

In my time as a student (which was until recently) I was at two faculties of Charles University in Prague (Law and Social Sciences), at the University of Tartu and finally at CEU. While all of them are top-notch institutions and I am a proud alumnus of all of them, I dare to say that the time at CEU was by far the most transformative for me as far as education and worldviews are concerned. CEU stands out in the wider central European region as an education center of exceptional quality. I draw on the courses I took in Budapest in both my professional and private life today and will surely also in the future; be it the economics classes with Martin Kahanec or quantitative methods with Achim Kemmerling to name just a few.

By making it difficult or even impossible for CEU to operate, the Hungarian government is doing a great disservice not only to Hungary itself but also to Central Europe; a region which is in dire need of quality education. I should also stress that CEU provides very generous stipends as I also benefited from one. Their fellowship program and various other stipend options make it possible from deferent backgrounds to come to Budapest, receive good quality education and indeed experience the world.

When I said CEU was transformative also for my worldviews, I meant it. CEU encouraged me to think with an open mind; to be able to entertain an idea for a while and then put it aside in the words of Geogre Soros at our graduation ceremony; words that have stuck with me to this day. In many ways, it is true what they say about CEU and how it is a place full of liberal-minded people. But it’s because CEU does what any university should do, it teaches young people to think critically. During my time in Budapest, there would always be a student initiative of this or that sort. Every now and then our inboxes would be filled (or spammed by, depending on your point of view) with emails reacting to this or that development and with reactions to the original email and reactions to reactions, and so on. While this could get quite annoying at times, it was very symptomatic of the environment at CEU, one of open-mindedness that the intuition helps to foster. CEU is a community which thrives on exchange of ideas. Something the society as a whole should protect and nourish.

Thus CEU now stands as a symbol of something much bigger. It stands in way of muting and crushing open society which we in Central Europe have so laboriously been trying to build in the past three decades. We also know very intimately the ease with which it is to lose freedoms we take from granted as we’ve experienced it at the hands of Fascists and Communists multiple times in the past century. They’ve already come for the Socialists, Trade Unionists and Jews of today and now they’ve come for me. I am hopeful there are still enough people left to speak out. If CEU falls, let it be a sacrifice that unmasks the Orbans of Europe for the dictators they are.   

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