On March 23, the Hungarian government introduced legislation with the goal of drastically modifying the ways in which foreign universities can operate on Hungarian soil. The law targeted one institution in particular: The Central European University (CEU), a private university that offers masters and doctoral degrees for a highly selective body of graduate students from East-Central Europe, Russia and countries of the ex-USSR, as well as many Western European countries and the US. Founded in 1991 with an endowment by George Soros, the school’s mission has been to foster a much-needed civil society and independent intellectual inquiry after the breakdown of the authoritarian, communist regimes in the region. The CEU has produced internationally acclaimed research by its faculty as well as its alumni in sociology, medieval studies, gender studies, economics, environmental studies, political science and many other disciplines.
Despite the outrage and opposition by academics, public intellectuals and many politicians as well, the law was jammed through the Hungarian parliament by the majority Fidesz party on April 4, and was signed into effect by the president less than a week later. Amongst others, the new regulations require that educational institutions with international accreditations be affiliated with European Union (EU) member countries or else have a special agreement with the Hungarian government or a local university; that such institutions must have an active campus in the country of accreditation; and also that faculty and staff employed by such higher education institutions must be EU citizens.
Critics agree that these requirements target the CEU specifically since the CEU is the only US accredited university in Hungary that has complete financial and institutional independence and, due to the very nature of its purpose (to study the region of Eastern Europe), it does not have a campus in the United States; and finally because a significant number of its faculty are US citizens or come from outside the EU including its current rector and president, Michael Ignatieff, who is a Canadian citizen.
Seemingly, the situation of the CEU in Hungary has very little in common with our lives here at CUNY. We work for one of the largest public university systems in the United States with the mission to offer equal access and a chance for upward mobility to an extremely diverse, urban student population. The question therefore is logical – while it makes sense to generally support keeping an internationally recognized education and research open, why should we care about the CEU especially? Why should we understand better and follow closely what is happening to this relatively small private graduate institution in a distant country such as Hungary?
Here is my answer. Understating what is happening in Hungary right now may raise our awareness about just how fragile and contested the notion of “academic freedom” is. Academic freedom and the freedom of thought in Hungary has a relatively short and hard-fought history in the post-Cold War era. Most Hungarian universities are financially dependent on the government and so faculty continuously battle ideological pressure and nepotism. The CEU is unique in the sense that since its establishment it has remained fiscally and politically independent from Hungarian politics. The current government has very low tolerance for such independence.
Academic freedom is a principle that CUNY faculty cherish and take pride in. But, it seems to me, to a degree we also take our right to academic freedom for granted. However, academic freedom remains contentious and without historical vigilance and politically effective solidarity, as the case of the CEU suggests, it is easily curtailed. In fact, academic freedom is a commitment rather than a right and it is deeply embedded in the history of higher education. As the 1940 “Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure” by the American Association of University Professors demonstrates, academic freedom is a continuing pledge of solidarity by all institutions of higher education (including private and religious ones) who endorse and commit to the principle of full freedom in the classroom to discuss appropriate subjects and full freedom in scholarly research and publication. The example of CEU and Hungary reminds us that the right to academic and intellectual freedom is not a given and, in many countries, not even a right.
The case of Hungary also demonstrates that while the primary challenge to academic freedom is financial (which affects public universities such as CUNY directly), the legal implications are extremely important. The nature of the legislative, judicial and executive branches in Hungary is such that constitutional and legal changes are easily implemented. The Fidesz party, which enjoys a majority in the one-house Hungarian parliament, without any difficulty rewrote the Hungarian constitution as its first legislative act in 2010 to reflect its nationalist, conservative ideology, to politicize the judicial system and to centralize all branches of government. As part of this legislative transformation, the Fidesz government also changed, for instance, the Hungarian media laws in a way that has resulted in the exponential increase of pro-government media and the de facto obliteration of most opposition media (especially television, radio and newspapers).
AGAINST CIVIL SOCIETY
In 2014, Viktor Orbán, the prime minister, declared the end of “liberal democracy” in Hungary and has since spearheaded the control of media and the ongoing harassment of nongovernmental organizations not in line with his “illiberal” ideology. The attack on the CEU is part of these efforts, a general frustration on the government’s side with an independent Hungarian civil society that has been critical of Orbán’s populist nationalist agenda.
Witnessing the fast, dramatic reshaping of the legal landscape in Hungary as well as the failure to enact such sweeping changes in Washington has taught me to appreciate the system of “checks and balances” – sometimes exasperatingly sluggish legislative processes – in the United States in new ways. Perhaps it is time for us to reassess our sense of urgency and unwillingness to compromise in US politics and to embrace slowness and careful deliberation not only in our classrooms but also in the arena of political and policy debates, especially when at stake are essential rights such as healthcare or the right to the freedom of thought and freedom of expression. The case of filibustering also comes to mind here.
As the CEU finds itself fighting for survival in a hostile political and legislative environment, there is a dim light of hope however. The recent events related to the CEU have brought together Hungarian society in an unprecedented act of solidarity, has triggered a level of civic engagement and peaceful resistance unseen in the last decade or more. The attack on the CEU activated large segments of Hungarian society well beyond academia and public intellectuals. While prominent personalities including Kofi Annan, Angela Merkel, Mario Vargas Llosa and Judith Butler, alongside academic institutions and advocacy groups all around the world have expressed support for the CEU and for intellectual freedom (#IsupportCEU), what really matters is the tens of thousands of Hungarians who are taking to the streets day after day expressing their discontent and criticism of the current government and its overreach.
The future of the demonstrations is unclear; however, if successful, their fight for academic freedom might develop into a galvanizing moment in the struggle of Hungarians against a corrupt, secretive, intolerant and authoritarian government. That moment when academic freedom becomes the trigger for transformative political change is a historical moment that all of us at CUNY should watch closely.
Lilla Tőke is a graduate of the Central European University and an assistant professor of English at LaGuardia Community College.