On April 4, Hungary’s Parliament passed amendments to an existing higher-education law that were intended to force the closing of Central European University in Budapest, an institution created in 1991 to restore and revitalize an intellectual life that had been ravaged by decades of fascist and communist rule. Since then, CEU has expanded and evolved, becoming one of the most international and diverse universities in the world, with some 1,440 students from 108 countries enrolled in graduate programs under 12 humanities and social-science faculties. The amended law is a grave threat to CEU because it makes two demands that the university cannot fulfill: It must ground its existence in a bilateral treaty between Hungary and the United States; and it must open a campus in New York State, where it is also accredited. Otherwise, CEU must cease taking new students in the fall of 2018. The law was signed by the Hungarian president on April 10.
The government has not openly revealed the true rationale behind these measures. In an interview on state radio, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán accused CEU of enjoying unfair advantages over Hungarian state universities due to its dual accreditation, and even of breaking the law. Alluding to George Soros, the Hungarian-American businessman and philanthropist who founded CEU, Orbán said: “Even if someone is a billionaire, they cannot be above the law in Hungary…. Cheating is cheating, no matter who does it.” Orbán’s words blend falsehood with hypocrisy. Since its inception, CEU has abided by Hungarian law, and if it has an advantage over state universities, it is because Orbán’s government slashed funding for higher education by 25 percent between 2010 and 2013.
What lies at the root of the new amendments is Orbán’s contempt for CEU’s founder. Like right-wing politicians in Macedonia, Slovakia, and Poland, Orbán has been agitating against Soros for years, but with special venom since Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 US presidential election; he has accused Soros’s Open Society Foundation of bankrolling the illegal entry of refugees into Hungary and of supporting his political opponents. Late last year, Orbán declared that all organizations associated with Soros must be “driven out of Europe.”
Orbán’s assault on CEU is not without precedent. In the 20th century, authoritarian and totalitarian regimes in East Central Europe repeatedly attacked the autonomy of universities, but few dared to liquidate them entirely. In Poland, Stalinists forced new statutes upon universities that allowed the Ministry of Higher Education to restructure hiring and research practices, but permitted the Catholic University in Lublin to continue to operate. Nazi Germany was more draconian: On November 6, 1939, German authorities, determined to turn Poland into a nation of semi-literates, sent the faculty of Jagiellonian University in Krakow to the concentration camps at Sachsenhausen and closed all Polish institutions of secondary and higher education. A little over a week later, Nazi authorities also closed Czech universities after student-led demonstrations against the occupation in Prague.
But only Adolf Hitler was Adolf Hitler. Who is Viktor Orbán? Some think he’s a cynic interested solely in power, but as an anticommunist student leader, he once called for Hungary’s return to the West, and became famous for publicly demanding the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Hungary in the summer of 1989. Fidesz (a portmanteau name for the Alliance of Young Democrats) was the party that Orbán co-founded in 1988; it belonged to the Liberal International, and he served as the party’s vice chairman.