A University Leaves Budapest

After legal and political drama seemingly spanning years, a final move has been made in Hungry, as the Central European University (CEU) prepares to leave the country.

The university has been under threat for a while, actively targeted by the government of Viktor Orban, including the recent passage of a law designed to make the operation of foreign-run universities a more bureaucratically challenging enterprise.

All this attention afforded by a government to a small foreign operation might seem initially illogical. But things become clearer when the personalities involved come into focus. CEU’s founder is George Soros, the billionaire philanthropist and activist who has become a bête noire of the international right and of the Hungarian government in particular.

In Hungary’s recent parliamentary elections, the conspiracy theory which holds that Soros acts covertly to undermine Hungarian culture through immigration and multiculturalism moved from the fringes to become household words. Since the election, Orban’s campaign against Soros has only intensified. In Budapest, posters condemning Soros which are widely and internationally deemed anti-Semitic are commonly sighted.

Central European University, when seen as a Soros outpost, thus became a natural target for Hungary’s government.

That a government sought to run a university out of town at all is as shaming as it is absurd. And any attempt to persecute and even close educational institutions because of the politics of their founders constitutes a serious abridgement of academic and intellectual freedom.

Such things foreshadow an era of politicised higher education, with governments punishing aberrant institutions and tightening their grip on what can be taught to the young. These things are worthy of condemnation on their own terms.

But when contemplating the fate of CEU, there is more to consider. CEU’s situation forms part of the resistance a number of governments are mounting against international non-governmental organisations and especially those connected to Soros.

The wholesale attacking of institutions of all kinds linked to Soros extends across Eastern Europe and into Asia. Last month, the Open Society Foundation, a pro-democracy NGO, announced it will soon quit Turkey following hostility from the state. In May, the same organisation weighed leaving Hungary in similar circumstance, and determined to do so.

CEU’s relative endurance in a comparable situation ought to be celebrated, but not unduly. Because, in truth, the university fought for its life in ways which were not ultimately effective, exposing the weakness in all manner of traditional international authority which might, in the past, have had success in compelling the Hungarian government to exercise restraint.

The bare truth of the situation is that the CEU’s protestations and attempts to gain the support of Western elites did not bear fruit.

Examine the methods employed by those close to CEU to protect its independence and forestall its evacuation.

Michael Ignatieff, the university’s president and rector, is a man of impeccable academic credentials and political experience. He has struggled manfully to protect his domain. He cleverly and evocatively suggested that his university’s fate typified the confrontation between nationalism and internationalism, liberalism and illiberalism, a conflict which holds European elites transfixed. It is a powerful line to take; but when illiberalism and nationalism are winning in Hungary, defining oneself as being integral to the losing side may not prove the wisest tactic.

CEU’s defenders also held of protests and seminars of sympathy at elite educational institutions across western Europe. Such things were prominent at forcing houses of Britain’s governing classes such as Oxford and Cambridge. But though the solidarity these events attempt to foster may be nice, it can do very little when the other side is prepared to use more than the judicious deployment of kind words and condemnation to secure its desired outcome.

The university made effective use of the international press, with Ignatieff and Soros offering warm interviews, and with British and American foreign correspondents kept up to date with the bureaucratic battles the university was fighting. A student at CEU, Rosa Schwartzburg, was even given space in the New York Times late last month to put the university’s case to its readers. The piece was good; its message clear. But the newspaper’s decision to headline the effort “Can Students Save George Soros’s School?” seems an own goal given the reasons behind CEU’s present troubles.

All of this accounts for why the campaign to save CEU seems not only to have failed – for no concrete international support was forthcoming — but perhaps to have actively harmed the university’s cause.

Seeking international support would perhaps, in times past, have shamed Hungary’s government into reconsidering its behaviour rather than suffer international condemnation and indignity.

But now, with that government political secure and nationalism rampant, linking the institution even more obviously with foreign interests, and with the ‘globalism’ which serves as a focal point for animosity in the politics of Orban and others, may have been a strategy whose effectiveness was worse than useless. And the result of the campaign, for all its good intentions and fine words, appears to demonstrate the change this portends.

A version of this piece was originally published at CapX.

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