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Academic Freedom: The Latest Target of Hungary’s ‘Illiberal’ Orban

An announcement on Oct. 25, 2018, revealed Central European University (CEU) plans to relocate its main campus from Budapest, Hungary to Vienna, Austria by December 1st of this year. The address comes after a nearly 18-month long, unsettled struggle between CEU officials and members of the Hungarian government, in regards to Hungary’s legal tightening and impositions of restraint on the autonomy and academic freedom of the university.

Functioning as a U.S. accrediting institution based out of New York state, CEU has faced pushback from the Hungarian government in regards to its continued operations in the country, with specific regard to its activities most readily seen as liberalizing and ultimately threatening to the values of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Since April 2017, with changes to the Hungarian Higher Education Act, Orban increasingly has constrained the abilities of CEU to operate independently. The Hungarian government eradicated the university’s gender studies program, suspended all research topically related to migration, and enforced restrictive tax policies against the university. The government’s actions suggest an overriding mission to reign in the academic freedom of the institution, with the aim of solidifying control over a source of independent thought that does not conform to the whims of those in power in Hungary.

Central European University in Budapest. Photo.    Credit: CEU

Central European University in Budapest. Photo. Credit: CEU

Many view Orban’s constriction of CEU as a reflection of targeted and long held disdain for the university’s founder George Soros, a Hungarian-American philanthropist. Soros founded the university in 1991, following the dissolution of communism across Central and Eastern Europe, in the hopes of establishing a center for fostering democratic thought and open learning in the region. However, Soros’ other main organization, The Open Society Foundations, a philanthropical body, has similarly been driven from Hungary following scrutiny and threat from the government, forcing it to relocate to Berlin. Soros has long found himself a pointed target of Orban’s campaign efforts, emblazoned as a symbol of antagonism and disruption within Hungary, for his Jewish background and support for migrants threaten Hungarian beliefs and values as purported by Orban. The implications of the Hungarian government’s actions suggest a larger motivation to overall limit social freedoms in tandem with the rise of Orban’s plans for an ‘illiberal democracy’ within Europe.

George Soros and Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Photo.    Credit: Daily News Hungary

George Soros and Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Photo. Credit: Daily News Hungary

CEU has been in compliance with the agreement set forth between the university and the Hungarian government. Yet, the Hungarian government now refuses to validate the agreement and permit CEU to remain in Budapest, with no explicit reason as to why. The U.S. Ambassador to Hungary, David B. Cornstein, is working with CEU officials, including the university’s President, Michael Ignatieff, and members of the Hungarian government to try and rectify the problems at hand before the university’s slated departure in the beginning of December. However, the compressed timeline leaves room for progress dubious.

Thus, Orban and the Hungarian government’s actions against CEU raise significant concerns regarding the future of academic freedom and democracy in the country. The European Union, in recognition of Hungary’s rise in ‘illiberal’ policy under the rule of Orban, has taken numerous steps to address the negligible actions of the government. Amidst launching legal processes and initiating a process of Article 7 against the Hungarian government for various violations of rule of law, it remains to be seen whether outside influence is enough to turn Hungary back towards a path of recognizing civil liberties and social freedoms. Perhaps the European People’s Party, under which Orban’s party Fidesz is affiliated, has a greater role to play in condemning the actions of the government and denouncing the ‘illiberal’ path it is heading down. However, Orban and the Hungarian government have thus proven steadfast in the face of outside scrutiny and dissatisfaction.