How international scholars are fighting for Central European University

A protest campaign in support of the Hungarian university is in full swing, explains Jan Kubik

April 26, 2017
Source: iStock

Today, the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at University College London will hold a rally in support of academic freedom, which is under threat in Hungary as the government passes legislation that could shut down the Central European University in Budapest. 

The Central European University (CEU) reacted forcefully to the legislation. The university’s officials knew that the proposed measures constituted a mortal threat to their institution and immediately engaged in protest actions that have by now garnered support around the world. The situation has quickly escalated – the legislation was passed by the parliament on 4 April, and signed into law by President Adler on 10 April. A massive protest campaign has since gained momentum in Hungary and in many countries around the world. 

The goal of this legislation, unprecedented in the European Union, is the obliteration or weakening of an excellent institution of higher learning – for no other reason than its guiding philosophy being at odds with the ideology of the current Hungarian government. CEU subscribes to the idea (a given in the free world) that the goal of a university is the pursuit of knowledge through unconstrained debate, disciplined research and imaginative teaching. As hundreds, if not thousands, of testimonials indicate, CEU has been extremely successful in realising these goals.

The Hungarian government, led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, is committed to the realisation of a different vision. In a country whose system Orbán once characterised as “illiberal democracy”, any debate is best when it is constrained by the interests of the nation, research’s excellence is measured by its ideological “correctness”, and teaching does not deviate from the state officials’ ideological ideals. In short, it is a conflict between the ideals of open society, espoused by CEU benefactor, George Soros, and the ideals of a self-centred nation-state. 

Any governmental attempt to close down a university is very troubling. An attack on a university in a country that has already been travelling on a path towards a reversal of democratisation is alarming. Universities are analogous to canaries in coalmines. Their freedom and independence are indicators of the quality of the public sphere. Their death or weakening signals trouble for this sphere, a sphere that is indispensable for democracy.

Governments on a path towards authoritarianism claim that the public sphere is theirs to control in order to improve democracy. But one of the sure signs of the erosion of democratisation is tinkering with the independence of public domain institutions, including universities.

Moreover, universities are at their best when they are a pain in the backside to any democratic political regime. Their job is to create a protective zone around independent scholars, so they can freely explore the boundaries of what is “thinkable”, even if it affronts the rulers. Any healthy society needs such zones. Without them, democracy withers away and societies atrophy.

CEU, which I know well, is a magnificent institution of higher learning, devoted to freedom of intellectual enquiry and high ethical standards, as are all the world’s best universities. 

The world is torn by a conflict between the need to preserve cultural diversity and the imperative to build a just and fair world order based on universal principles. The former involves protecting the dazzling (also national) variations of humanity; the latter is about a never-ending search for the best way to articulate our common essence and to protect it by devising a broadly acceptable rule book. 

Public space controlled by a government that is primarily interested in preserving its nation’s culture is not a fertile ground for the inquiry into common human principles. Such a government privileges a particular set of experiences and traditions over universal human commonality.

On the other hand, a government committed solely to universal ideals is also dangerous, for it is deaf and blind to people’s need for cultural familiarity. A solution lies somewhere between these two polar opposites. Educational and artistic institutions and collectives, ensconced in a free public space protected by non-interfering government, are designed to find solutions to the competing tendencies. CEU has been one such institution, yet it will survive only if the government stops trying to silence it.

Jan Kubik is director of the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies.

The Rally for Academic Freedom organised by the SSEES, takes place at UCL at 6pm tonight (26 April 2017).

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