Hungary’s Attack on Academic Freedom

By Kimberly Tuttle (CMC ’19)

Central European University (CEU), one of the leading American accredited universities in Central Europe, is being forced out of Budapest, Hungary. In April 2017, the Hungarian Parliament changed the country’s higher education laws, making it illegal for some independent universities to operate. The new law requires universities registered outside of Hungary, like CEU, to gain approval from the Hungarian government to remain open. It allows the government to ban universities by refusing to sign a continuation contract. This law’s establishment sets a dangerous precedent for the potential exploitation of liberal education and raises questions about what role the U.S. should play in disputing the expulsion of CEU.

The law imposes several costs for the university that could jeopardize its future. All of the American-accredited degree programs at CEU will transfer to a new campus in Vienna, Austria. The cost of living in Vienna is much higher than in Budapest. The students and faculty affected by this change comprise a few thousand people, all of whom will be forced out of Hungary. Non-EU citizen university staff will also be obligated to reinstate work permit requirements, which has historically been waived for CEU.

Not only does this law impact the American-accredited degree programs at CEU, but it also endangers the Hungarian-accredited programs, called Közép-európai Egyetem (KEE). All of CEU’s students are enrolled in American programs. Thus, each student will have to choose between relocating to Vienna or changing the trajectory of their degree to meet KEE requirements. However, KEE offers significantly fewer programs than CEU, making it unclear whether or not it can provide viable options to students.

This Hungarian law creates both monetary costs for the university and political ramifications for the country. CEU was founded by George Soros, a world-famous Hungarian-American investor and philanthropist, and has long been recognized as a liberal institution that promotes civic engagement and individual freedom. Many people view the decision of Viktor Orbán, the prime minister of Hungary, to oust the university as an attack on liberal democracy. Accompanied by the neo-nazi German Alternative for Deutschland party and the extreme nationalist Front National French party, Orbán has launched an anti-immigrant campaign and challenged core European values. He has successfully introduced illiberal ideologies into his own country’s governance and has contributed to the rise of far-right populism throughout Europe.

Orbán’s re-election campaign in 2018 promised to introduce a “Stop Soros” bill designed to shut down liberal organizations that, in the eyes of the Orbán government, have worked against the government’s agenda to keep migrants out. His campaign warned that allies of Soros would face “moral, political, and legal revenge.” Even though his blatant attacks on liberal democracy were foreseen, they have nevertheless produced challenges for European Union member states and allies, like the United States.

In 2018, Hungary removed gender studies from a list of approved Hungarian-accredited programs in effort to challenge academic freedom. The European Parliament cited this evidence, along with the law that forces CEU out of Hungary, to authorize a punitive procedure that can lead to sanctions against Hungary for violating the founding values of the European Union. It is unclear how long the process will take and how effective the sanctions will be in preventing Hungary from perpetuating conflict within the EU.

Since the protection of shared values is inherent in the alliance between the EU and the U.S., many people are questioning what role the American government should play in protecting CEU and liberal education in Hungary. Liberal education is deeply-rooted in American values and historically, transatlantic relations have guided America’s foreign policy decisions. When evaluating America’s foreign policy record and the large emphasis of freedom in America, intervention, or at the least public condemnation of the Hungarian government, would seemingly align with American standards.

However, the Trump era has altered EU-US relations, shifting the focus of foreign policy to Asia. Rather than condemning Viktor Orbán for his flagrant acts that oppose American interests, President Trump has congratulated Orbán for his re-election. As of November 2018, Hungarians were hopeful of a renegotiation deal for CEU. Though, without political pressure from the Trump administration, it is unlikely the Hungarian government will renegotiate terms to allow CEU to remain in the country.


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