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“A Dark Day for Hungary”


It has been twenty months since Viktor Orban’s Fidesz government launched their legislative attack on Central European University. Today, CEU officially announced that it will move all US-accredited programs to a new campus in Vienna.

Over the course of 20 months, CEU has taken all steps to comply with Hungarian legislation, launching educational activities in the U.S. that were certified by U.S. authorities. Nevertheless, the Hungarian government has made it clear it has no intention of signing the agreement that it negotiated over a year ago with the State of New York, which would ensure CEU’s operations in Budapest for the long term.

As an academic with close personal ties to Budapest and to CEU, this is heart-breaking. As the CEU press release acknowledges,

Arbitrary eviction of a reputable university is a flagrant violation of academic freedom. It is a dark day for Europe and a dark day for Hungary. “The government has done an injustice toward its own citizens – Michael Ignatieff said – the hundreds of Hungarians who work and study at CEU, and thousands of Hungarian alumni and their families.”

Orban’s government has successfully shut Hungary out of giant sections of the global intellectual community.

CEU is a graduate institution accredited in the U.S. and Hungary with 1200 master’s and doctoral students in the humanities, social sciences, business, law, cognitive and network science. The university employs 770 staff and faculty and contributes 25 million Euros (8 billion forints) to the Hungarian economy each year in taxes, pension and health contributions, and payments to suppliers. It is Central Europe’s most successful applicant for competitive European Union research grant funding, with more than 19 million Euros awarded for the 2018-2026 period.

These are massive losses for the country, its students and citizens, and the surrounding businesses. Hungarian university students regularly rely on CEU’s library holdings–which far outpace their own institutions’ in terms of content, access, and usability. Public events on the campus bring world-class visitors and speakers into reach for those in the region. Faculty and programs have vibrant collaborations with local institutions. The surrounding neighborhood has boomed in the past decade–and I am selfishly concerned that my favorite restaurants and cafes will suffer from the lack of CEU patrons (indeed, many of these openly displayed pro-CEU messages when LexCEU first passed).

The real consequences remain to be seen. In a personal message to the broader CEU community, Ignatieff clarifies that

CEU retains its Hungarian accreditation and will strive to retain its teaching and research activity in Budapest for as long as possible. CEU will be here for you – as you have stood by it – for the foreseeable future… We plan to keep as many activities as possible in our Budapest home, while establishing a permanent campus at our new Vienna home.

But there is a far larger story here. Ultimately, CEU’s formal departure from Budapest ultimately attests to the weakness of the US and its EU allies in the face of a mortal attack on fundamental values.

“CEU has been forced out,” said CEU President and Rector Michael Ignatieff. “This is unprecedented. A U.S. institution has been driven out of a country that is a NATO ally. A European institution has been ousted from a member state of the EU.”

Washington Post coverage from this weekend highlights the failures of US and European leaders to stop this from happening.

European Union leaders warned that it was a red line, and dared Hungary not to cross it. The U.S. ambassador pegged the issue as his top priority. In the streets of Budapest, tens of thousands marched.

But in the end, there was nothing to stop Prime Minister Viktor Orban — who calls all the shots at home and increasingly does the same with his supposedly more powerful allies in the West — from driving Central European University into exile.

Reaction from E.U. officials on Monday was muted. In an interview with The Washington Post last week, U.S. Ambassador to Hungary David B. Cornstein confirmed that he had never tried to use either incentives or threats to sway Orban, despite proclaiming upon arrival in Budapest in June that his top mission was to keep CEU in the country.

And just to drive home the idea that petty political rivalries trumped commitment to supposedly foundational values of the liberal West:

With that effort having failed, [Cornstein] blamed the university’s founder — Hungarian American financier George Soros — for the school’s departure and refused to criticize Orban.

Far from Making America Great or even placing America First, the Trump administration allowed a minor wanna-be dictator from a small country evict a US-accredited institution that stood as both a triumph of post-Cold War open society and a globally respected intellectual force.

If Hungary today is darker, we in the US are diminished.

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