BUDAPEST — In an act of nationalism that reflects a larger trend in Europe, on March 31, the Hungarian parliament passed legislation that could close the Central European University, located in Budapest. This move, carried out at the urging of the nation’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, threatens academic freedom on a larger scale.
The Central European University (CEU), was founded in 1991 by Hungarian-American financier Georges Soros as a means of establishing academic freedom and helping Hungary transition into a more liberal democratic society after being under control of the Soviet Union during the years of the “Iron Curtain.” Both Hungarians and Americans have attended the university and credit its presence with inspiring open dialog and research that had not been available.
For the past 25 years, many Hungarian scholars and academics have returned to Hungary as instructors. Students earn both American and Hungarian university degrees. It is this globalist policy that Prime Minister Orban specifically rejects. According to the New York Times, Orban opposes both multiculturalism and migration and is often at odds with both Soros and the university that he founded.
Former student Lesley Davis, now assistant dean of international programs at Indiana University’s School of Law, praises CEU for helping the entire region surrounding Hungary, saying that it has helped “to engage in free research and open discussion of topics that had either not been openly discussed in decades or even recognized as fields worthy of academic study (such as gender studies). CEU represented (and still represents) a driving force behind the promotion and defense of civil society in the region, and this is threatening to the Orban regime.”
Davis has been particularly invested in the region. In 1990 after graduating from Beloit College she created the program Teach Hungary (now the Central European Teaching Program) which sends American university graduates to schools in the region as English teachers. During its initial years, it served as an important bridge for people from both countries as they found many common interests and values. Many Americans stayed in the region and attended CEU, opening businesses and promoting the globalist philosophy of openness that was initially embraced in the 1990s.
Orban has repeatedly praised Turkey and Russia as models of “illiberal democracy,” where students and instructors have been jailed and campuses have been closed. American businessman John Cantwell, who has lived in Hungary since 1994 and who earned an MBA from CEU in 2000, described the situation as “getting bleaker,” but expressed hope that a constitutional court would reject the legislation.
In response to the legislation, thousands of students and faculty members protested, walking throughout the city from Budapest’s Corvinus University to CEU, underscoring the solidarity between the two institutions. Other forms of protest have occurred on social media, with some people using the English and Hungarian hashtags #IstandwithCEU and #aCEUvalvagyok to state their continued support for academic freedom for all universities in Hungary.
– Amy Hempe