The End of Central European University?
Central European University located in Budapest, Hungary was the creation of Hungarian philanthropist George Soros. The university was founded in 1991 after the revolution that led to a transition from communism in Central and Eastern Europe. The university’s primary mission is to provide the “pursuit of truth wherever it leads, respect for the diversity of cultures and peoples, and commitment to resolve differences through debate not denial.” CEU is known as being one of the most densely international universities in the world with students and staff from more than 130 countries. Its mix of nationalities, ethnicities, and cultures provides for a truly open environment in which to explore topics that have a global impact.
Recent amendments proposed by the FIDESZ led government to the Hungarian higher education laws, may initiate an end to the internationally recognized university. Current CEU President and Rector Michael Ignatieff stated that the University’s dismantling, “would damage Hungarian academic life […].” Moreover, the closure would negatively impact the government’s relations with its fellow European Union members and the United States. The legislation’s primary target appears to be CEU and institutions that promote liberal values. Much backlash from the academic world has emerged as scholars have taken to social media to express their discontent with the Hungarian government’s actions, and to show their support for the university. Prime Minister Viktor Orban, himself a Soros scholarship recipient, has been quite critical of Hungarian-born philanthropist George Soros. Orban has consistently accused Soros of wanting to have an influence on Hungarian politics and supporting migration into Europe.
Some of the provisions of the amendment to the Hungarian higher education law will make it difficult for CEU to deliver its various programs and issue degrees. According to Ignatieff the amendment may force the university out of Hungary. Around 26 universities in Hungary are targeted by the tabled legislation, with seven of them including CEU, having international founders. Prior to 2004, CEU offered only US-accredited programs, but eventually the Hungarian government and the university’s board in New York reached a compromise. The deal between New York and the Hungarian government allowed CEU to offer Hungarian and US-accredited Masters and PhD degrees. CEU’s record of academic excellence over its 25 years of existence appears threatened. The university receives more European Research Council (ERC) grants than any other university in Hungary or in the region. Forcing CEU and other universities out of Hungary will be detrimental to both Hungarian and European interests, thus hindering academic competitiveness.
CEU students and staff have united to seek support from other universities domestically and abroad. However, the recent protest is occurring at a time of deteriorating relations between the recently elected US President Donald Trump and CEU’s founder Soros. Prime Minister Orban, a staunch Trump supporter, was once an ally of Soros following the immediate fall of communism in Hungary. Orban won a scholarship sponsored by Soros to study at Oxford University, but has striven to close NGOs partially funded by Soros. CEU was meant to provide a glimmer of hope in the aftermath of the communism period. What the future holds for CEU’s continued existence, only time will tell.