CEU president resists move to Vienna after Orbán victory

The president of the embattled Central European University, Michael Ignatieff, said last week: “I don’t want to move the entire operation to Vienna.” This in the wake of a landslide election victory last Sunday by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party, delivering him a third successive term in power.

The international Central European University or CEU has been at loggerheads with the Hungarian government since last year, when a law was passed restricting the ability of foreign universities to set up in the country.

In particular the government stipulated that institutions had to be established via an agreement between Hungary and the state where the university originates, “which out of the blue required a bilateral agreement with the government”, Ignatieff noted.

He was delivering the keynote speech on the topic of academic freedom at the Centre for Global Higher Education’s 2018 annual conference held at the UCL Institute of Education, University College London, on 11 April.

Ignatieff said the university, which was founded by Hungarian-born financier George Soros after the collapse of communism in Europe, has signed an agreement with the City of Vienna to open a new secondary campus there from 2019, in addition to its main campus in Budapest and its site in the United States at Bard College in New York state.

Plan A

He vowed to do his level best to keep CEU in the Hungarian capital. But new restrictions brought in by the government last year would not allow CEU to exist in Hungary as a stand-alone institution – it has to be a branch. The 2017 restrictions “dropped on us without warning, without consultation, without precedent”, he said.

“We decided that we needed a satellite campus in Vienna because there are things we can do in Vienna, which is a great international city, which we cannot do in Budapest.

“I don’t want to move the entire [CEU] operation to Vienna,” he stressed. It would not only be a logistical nightmare, but also “a university that is there to defend free minds and freedom of institutions should not be pushed out of a country by a regime. So we are trying to find a way to stay.”

Publicly the Hungarian government has stated that it is not trying to close CEU down, but is merely ensuring all institutions “play by the same rules”.

CEU would continue to offer “programmes and activities in Budapest”, Ignatieff said. The need to go to Vienna was to “hedge the political risk” and would also give CEU students opportunities that they might not have in Budapest.

Truth to power

Ignatieff noted that standing up to a regime was unusual for a university. “One of the institutional dispositions of universities is to be very quiet, thoughtful, avoid conflict, avoid standing up. Our lesson is that sometimes you’ve got to fight.”

However, if the other side would not talk or engage in dialogue, then “you’ve got to put some troops on the ground”.

He said CEU had rallied its extensive network of alumni and networks of colleagues in universities in Europe. This led to huge demonstrations in Budapest in support of the institution’s freedom to exist.

“Universities should not underestimate their public support,” Ignatieff said. “And there are occasions where standing up can raise the price for the other side. You sometimes have to fight political battles.”

As a consequence, the Hungarian government reluctantly agreed to negotiate with the state of New York in the United States, where CEU is accredited. “At the end of last summer, we got a deal which allowed us to remain in Budapest. In return we would establish educational activities in the United States – it made sense to compromise, so we compromised.”

“For nine months we have been waiting for the government of Hungary to sign this agreement,” he added.

With Orbán winning a “thumping majority” in election results announced last Monday, “he now holds all the cards. I am not able to tell you whether he will or will not sign the agreement that will allow us to stay in Budapest.”

“If we can’t remain in Budapest I will have to move an entire university across a European frontier to a European state.”

Defend academic freedom

Ignatieff admitted: “Until we got into this jam I did not think that hard about academic freedom” as a key freedom “that protects us all. We are not just fighting for a corporate privilege for ourselves, we are defending a counter-majoritarian institution whose function is to serve and protect and defend whole societies’ capacity to know anything at all.”

He appealed to British and other academic institutions to say “loud and clear that an attack on academic freedom anywhere in Europe is an attack on our academic freedom. Please speak [out] if the government of Hungary decides to close us down.”

What the Hungarian government’s decision will turn on, Ignatieff said, is whether pushing out CEU “turns out to be so popular inside [Orbán’s] own party that he will turn back at the last moment”.