A Threat to Academic Freedom Everywhere? A CEU Update

An estimated 70,000 people turned out to rally in support of Central European University in Budapest on Sunday. The amendment to the higher education law, given the moniker LexCEU, which would effectively close the international university was voted on and approved by the Hungarian parliament April 4th.  On Sunday April 9th, demonstrators called for President János Áder to veto the bill but their cries fell on deaf ears. On Monday night, as one of my friend’s put it in her facebook post, “President Áder decided not to give a damn about 80.000 people in his country and signed the law.”

CEU plans to continue operations citing a political, not an existential threat, and is therefore planning to challenge the ruling on legal ground. The President of CEU, Michael Ignatieff, has reassured the CEU community that they do not intend to abandon their Budapest home base. But right now, this is CEU’s fight to lose. That being said, this case could represent a change in the political climate in Hungary. The backlash against the higher education amendment has been stronger than anticipated and many European officials have been vocal in their response. In contrast, the global community has been relatively slow to respond to other questionable policies enacted since Orbán took power in 2010. Many of these polices seem to be in direct contradiction to European Union values but are written in such a way that nominally abide by EU principles. For example, in early March 2017 legislation was passed that would require all asylum seekers – those entering the country seeking asylum and those already in the country awaiting decisions – to be placed into converted shipping container facilities near the Serbian border. According to government spokesperson, Zoltán Kovács: “No migrants – not even those who have already issued their request for asylum – will be able move freely until there is a primary legal decision whether they are entitled for political asylum, refugee status or anything else, so they are not entitled to move freely in the country.” The humanitarian community adamantly claimed that this is detention, a practice expressly prohibited by EU asylum procedures. To this, Kovács responded that asylum seekers are always free to leave as long as they go back in the direction that they came. Thus, Hungary is following the letter of the law. If CEU is able to win its fight for survival, which will most definitely take place in the courts, it may open the door to further legal challenges.

Chances are reasonably good that CEU will succeed. Orbán has received more criticism on this legislation than any of his other questionable policies. A spokesperson for Angela Merkel cites the higher education legislation as a potential threat to freedom, democracy, rule of law, and human rights, and claims, “Germany will observe very closely the effects of this law on higher education in Hungary.” According to Giannia Pittell, head of the socialist group in the European Parliament, “Orbán is assailing the foundation of democracy in Hungary.” CEU has the support of many senior EU officials and academic institutions.

The Hungarian government has continued to claim that the bill is necessary to fight the George Soros, Hungarian-American billionaire whom Orbán claims is undermining Hungarian society. Government spokesperson Kovács has said, “George Soros’s lies can even mislead the Hungarian government.” As I argued last week, Soros is a symbolic representation of all that Orbán’s right wing administration is against. Soros’s “open society” is in conflict with the “illiberal democracy” supported by Orbán. The anti-Soros stance is not just evident in this most recent attack on CEU. The government has alleged that liberal minded humanitarian organizations such as the Hungarian Helsinki Committee and Transparency International are Soros-sponsored, foreign agents working against Hungarian interests. Nongovernmental organizations are the next on the legislative chopping block. A law is expected to be passed in May that would increase bureaucratic hurdles, increase administrative scrutiny and require NGOs to pay a fairly substantial fee to register with the authorities.  But this is not really an attack on Soros. He is the scapegoat. The attacks against CEU are illustrative of a larger campaign to keep Hungary for Hungarians. Indeed, the government has painted an image of the protestors as almost exclusively foreign. In doing so, they are excluding CEU as other and foreign as well. In other words, to not support the government is to be anti-Hungarian. Another facebook friend posted after the signing: “LexCEU signed by President of Hungary Áder, and it is to become law. This is how they try to silence dissenting voices, critical views, multicultural and multiethnic open society ideas – it is a disgrace. There were police cars in front of the uni as I was leaving and all the way to the Parliament; expecting trouble from those loudmouthed ‘foreign agents’ who are undermining the traditional fabric of our precious society. It makes me want to puke.”

Whatever rhetorical posturing Orbán and his cronies have to do to justify this legislation aside, it is very clear to see how and why CEU is seen as a threat to the kind of Hungarian society Orbán has been working to achieve.  First, and of course most obviously, the student body and faculty are largely non-Hungarian. While the university upholds itself as a Hungarian institution, promotes Hungarian cultural activities, and makes all of its events open to the Hungarian public, their working language is English and those associated with the university often do not learn the language or integrate into Hungarian society. They are in the country only for a short period of time to earn their degree. Second, as an institution dedicated to open society, many CEU programs are in direct conflict with the priorities of the current government. They have worked to provide integration support for asylum seekers while the government has endeavored to keep migrants out of the country. Third, as Michael Ignatieff wrote in a recent Op-Ed for The New York Times, “Academic freedom is a threat to authoritarian regimes everywhere.” The attack against CEU is more direct but is emblematic of threats to academic freedom that are visible in many other locales.

Although CEU is getting a lot of attention, Orbán has been subtly destabilizing academic sovereignty in the country for years.  Orbán has dramatically cut education funding and de-emphasized higher education. Despite the fact that the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has reported that holding a tertiary degree pays off in Hungary to a greater extent than in other OECD countries, participation in higher education is low and the dropout rate is high. This can largely be traced to educational priorities in primary and secondary school where non-essential skills (such as ethics) have been prioritized over essential skills (e.g. computer skills) and competencies (e.g., reading comprehension). The results of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a study conducted by the OECD released in December 2016 showed extremely poor results. Hungarian students showed a sharp decrease in reading comprehension and knowledge of science. While math scores remained the same as 2012, these scores had declined fairly dramatically since 2009.

The attack against CEU and the defunding of the education system as a whole is consistent with the anti-intellectualism associated with far right wing populism. There is danger in seeing this only as an attack on one institution and one individual, when this is part of a larger coordinated effort that has, at least up to this point, been relatively successful. I am hopeful that CEU can strategically use legal channels to efficaciously fight for their continued existence and I am also hopeful that their success will lead to other positive legal battles. Much is riding on this one battle. And, as Michael Stewart, one of my former CEU mentors put it, “It would be a tragedy for Hungary and the whole of European public life were Mr. Orbán to win this battle”. In the meantime, demonstrators will continue to take to the streets.

One thought on “A Threat to Academic Freedom Everywhere? A CEU Update

  1. This is a profoundly disturbing development, especially in the context of a rising tide of right-wing populist nationalism in other parts of Europe, the UK and USA as well. Our problem is how to respond to it with any hope of serious effect. I am at this moment in Taiwan, a country not recognized as a nation, a former Japanese colony regarded by the Peoples Republic of China as a renegade province, which is also a major nexus in international supply chains and home to corporations that have invested heavily in China and are major players in the IT world. The most famous example if Hong Hai Precision Co., Ltd (better known as the Foxconn Technology Group), famous for producing iPhones for Apple, infamous for suicides by its workers, which last year took over Japan’s Sharp Corporation and is, today’s news tells me, ready to offer US$27 billion for Toshiba’s chip business. The biggest worry on the academic horizon here is that subzero birthrates that began roughly two decades ago have resulted in a collapsing student population that is threatening to put many academic institutions out of business and may, one report I have read suggests, result in elimination of nearly a full one-quarter of current academic jobs, and since STEM (or possibly STEAM) is seen as a source of value, it is social sciences and humanities that are most likely to feel the axe.

    I mention these facts not to discount the seriousness of what is happening in Hungary but to point to a global context in which the academy as we have conceived it is threatened on two fronts, by right-wing populists and/or religious fundamentalists who see what the academy does as unpatriotic, blasphemous, or both, and by what might be called technocratic globalization, facilitated by the very technologies that we use in attempts like this one to mobilize support for causes too easy to write off as too local, too distant, too disconnected from “my” reality to energize opposition from any but those most directly affected. Having discarded old grand narratives and failed to create new ones, we lack a global foundation on which to build global resistance to events like the one in Hungary. We can share our indignation on Facebook or try to create a Twitter storm. But if that is all we can do, our plight is dire, indeed.

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