Central European University—Under No Other Name
The authors of this post, Una Blagojević, Cody James Inglis, and Ivana Mihaela Žimbrek, are current and former graduate students at Central European University.
The current tumult surrounding the Central European University (CEU) is now internationally well-known. In spring 2017, an amendment to Hungary’s Act CCIV of 2011 on National Higher Education—popularly called Lex CEU—introduced a series of requirements that international universities operating on Hungarian territory had to satisfy. The requirements of the amendment, which go into effect on 1 January 2019, were aimed mostly at CEU. Other international private universities in Budapest were either exempt from the requirements to begin with, or quietly signed their own agreements with the government. To confront these developments, a series of protests in favor of CEU were organized between 2 and 9 April 2017, with the largest occurring on 9 April, when roughly 70,000 protestors took to the streets of Budapest.
Nevertheless, the amendment was passed in a rushed parliamentary session and subsequently signed by the President of Hungary, János Áder. Over the next year-and-a-half, the prospects of Central European University changed little. The timeline of events reached rock-bottom on 3 December 2018 when the central administration of CEU announced its final decision to move all US-accredited programs to a new campus in Vienna. In a phrase, “no deal.” Along the way, the international press dutifully publicized these events, albeit with varying degrees of accuracy. Yet, a strange occurrence took form during this process: the name of Central European University changed to something at first unrecognizable to its administrators, alumni, faculty, staff, and students.
On 28 March 2017, Origo, a Hungarian news portal aligned with the Fidesz government, ran a story with the headline “Soros University Operates in Hungary with Serious Irregularities.” To those who follow local developments in the Hungarian media, such a headline went beyond previous anti-Soros provocations. It made a concrete claim that Central European University was operating in illegal territory. As the title shows, “Central European University” was synonymous with “Soros University”—and remains so. The information cited within the article had been obtained from the Hungarian Ministry of Human Resources; information that, by the time of publication, was neither public nor shared with the universities in question. But the timing didn’t and still doesn’t matter. A similar, seemingly coordinated article was published a few hours later by Magyar Idők, another right-wing news site, entitled “There Are Many Foreign Universities Operating Illegally—Soros Too?” The terminology set by these articles was quickly picked up and uncritically parroted by the international media.
Between 28 and 31 March 2017, at least fifty reports on the situation appeared in local, regional, and international media outlets. The tone of these articles varied from harsh criticism of the Fidesz government’s course of action to enthusiastic support for the turn against CEU. Yet, whether in the title or in the copy, nearly every article made use of the term “Soros University,” or shifted to milder “Soros-backed,” “Soros-funded,” or “Soros-founded” turns of phrase.
If it hasn’t been made clear so far, Central European University is not synonymous with “Soros University.” The former is a double-accredited institution; the latter, a slander. Certainly, it is true that CEU is an institution that was initially endowed and founded by George Soros in 1991. That is no secret and never was. However, CEU has been functionally independent of Soros’ direction from the moment it was founded. In fact, one big reason why Soros intervenes in the current situation at all is due to his position as Honorary Chairman of the Board of Trustees of CEU. As such, Soros adopts this responsibility ex officio—a responsibility shared with every other member of that Board.
The adoption of the term “Soros University” by the international media hasn’t done the university any favors. In fact, such use has only served to increase online traffic to their articles—“click bait,” to use the more accurate term. Any legitimate action taken by the university can now be called into question. A large, heterogeneous institution is now reduced to a single person. Further, and much more importantly, this has extended beyond the narrow concerns of a small, private university in Budapest: the problem reaches into every other sphere of life in the Hungary that Viktor Orbán is crafting for himself. As such, it is imperative to understand that the Hungarian government’s attack on CEU is only one part of Orbán and the ruling Fidesz party’s continual breaches of the rule of law, restrictions on freedoms of expression, and disregard for basic human rights.
A coalition of students from universities and research institutions in Budapest sought to build a wide front to address these attacks. Local Hungarian students joined with the droves of international students that also compose the student bodies of Andrassy Universität, Central European University, Corvinus University of Budapest, and Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE). Their platform was, and is, simple: “Szabad ország, szabad egyetem”—“Free country, free university.” The words do not simply refer to narrow interests of particular academic departments: the slogan encapsulates a broad program that calls attention to the harm done by the current government toward the homeless, national and ethnic minorities, refugees, LGBTQ+ communities, as well as the autonomy of higher educational and advanced research institutions in Hungary.
On 14 November, a group of faculty and students at ELTE went on strike over the government’s stripping of national accreditation from Gender Studies programs. The strike was joined by numerous others from universities around Budapest. On 24 November, a march was organized in further protest against the degrading situation. The route passed the threatened universities (Corvinus, ELTE, and CEU), as well as the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, before ending with a series of speeches by Hungarian academics and students in front of the Hungarian Parliament on Kossuth Lajos tér. At the end of the demonstration, protestors piled into tents that had been erected in one corner of Kossuth tér. For the next week, these tents acted as an educational occupation, dubbed “Szabad Egyetem,” translatable into English either as “Open University” or “Free University.” Between 24 November and 1 December, lectures, seminars, public discussions, and performances were held in tents during rainy, grey, below-freezing weather. Professors, instructors, students, and public passersby came and went during the day. At night, a core group of protestors slept in an adjoining tent while one or two stayed awake through the night in shifts to fulfill the legal requirements for the extended protest.
The educational occupation gained international attention in turn. Joan W. Scott, a pioneering feminist historian, held her own lecture there, drawing comparisons with threats to academic freedom in the United States. She described her experience at the “Szabad Egyetem” as being similar to the teach-ins in which she participated during the domestic American protests against the Vietnam War in the late 1960s. The international media, as always, showed up to cover the events. But again, they insisted that everything to do with academic freedom in Hungary was reducible to George Soros. On 24 November, the day of the protest that led to the occupation of Kossuth tér, DeutscheWelle reported that “Thousands rally for George Soros-founded University”; Reuters, that “Students rally in Budapest to keep Soros-founded school.” Le Monde later wrote that “‘L’université Soros’ s’apprete à quitter” and Die Presse ran with the title “Der Nervenkrieg um die Soros-Universität.” The list goes on.
Perhaps the most egregious example comes from The New York Times. On 29 November, a student at CEU, Rosa Schwartzburg, published an op-ed in the NYT opinion section entitled “Occupy Hungary.” It aptly reflected on the political importance of the educational occupation in Hungary and imagined the importance of such a symbolic gesture. Yet, later in the day, the title was changed—most likely without Ms. Schwartzburg’s consent—to the much less provocative and rhetorically indifferent question “Can Students Save George Soros’s School?” A more pressing set of questions arose: Is it George Soros’ school? Or is it ours?
For even if students attempt to assert their autonomy and fight for their own freedoms of expression and education, they are and always have been nothing more than “Soros agents” in the eyes of the Hungarian government and the international press. As such, the failure to accurately cover this situation on the part of international news outlets exposes two issues inherent in the coverage from the beginning: (1) a complete insensitivity to and misunderstanding of the layered local, national, and regional contexts; and (2) the creation of a cost-free mouthpiece for the current Hungarian government’s authoritarian and antisemitic rhetoric.
However, a more detrimental consequence of such language—beyond the casual representation of a near-conspiracy theory as fact—is that it has enabled a surrender of responsibility among the institutions of the European Union, the United States Department of State, and other international organizations. By equating the critical mass of protest organizers across universities in Budapest with the name of Georg Soros as the main puppeteer behind the student protests, the international community’s responsibility in allowing this to happen in the first place is downplayed to an extraordinary degree.
As a concrete example, take a recent interview with David B. Cornstein, the newly appointed Ambassador of the United States to Hungary, in the Washington Post. Cornstein clearly argued that the political attacks toward Central European University are nothing more than a conflict between two men—Soros and Orbán. Consequently, “it doesn’t have anything to do with academic freedom,” but rather with egos. Thus, the degradation of the political, economic, and cultural situation in Hungary’s “illiberal state” is, in the words of the chief representative of the United States’ diplomatic mission in Hungary, nothing more than a grudge. Now it becomes all too easy for European politicians to turn the other way and perceive this as a peripheral problem.
The Hungarian case is neither unique nor specific in this regard. Rather, it is symptomatic, fitting a much broader pattern of the failure of contemporary liberalism to confront authoritarian tendencies nearly everywhere in the world today. One cannot help but think of Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes’ insight that “it should come as no surprise that many Western liberals look at the political regimes in Hungary and Poland with the same ‘horror and disgust’ that filled the heart of Victor Frankenstein when he beheld his creature.” However, it should come as no surprise not merely because Western liberals often lack the regional competence to talk meaningfully about East-Central Europe, but precisely because the practices and ideology of liberalism have proven wholly inadequate in confronting these issues.