What does attack on CEU mean for US universities abroad?

The world is dotted with institutions that have strong US links, but they often have domestic opponents, who may be watching the case of CEU closely

April 10, 2017

The Hungarian government is pressing ahead with legislation that could force the country’s top-ranked institution, Budapest’s Central European University, to leave the country.

This troubling turn of events raises a wider question that goes beyond CEU, or even Hungary: under the presidency of Donald Trump, is the US able, or indeed willing, to defend its universities abroad?

Leon Botstein, chair of the CEU board, has called the new legislation “an unprecedented attack from within the EU on an American institution”. So far, the US response – a State Department release expressing concern last Friday – has not been enough to halt the Hungarian government’s plans. There have been reports that Trump’s election has emboldened Hungary’s increasingly authoritarian government to make a move against a potential source of opposition.

I raise this point because from Armenia to Afghanistan, from Iraq to Bulgaria, there exists a remarkable network of US-accredited universities that offer an education that is often otherwise unavailable to local students in their own country.

I can’t speak for them all but, on the whole, US-accredited universities abroad are pretty effective champions of the idea that campuses are places of free ideas and democratic debate and, of course, they boost US soft power in the process. And, as CEU has pointed out, these institutions are, in reality, often more local than American, in CEU’s case employing Hungarian staff, educating Hungarian students and winning research grant money for Hungary.

But in many countries that host US universities, there are groups that would like to close them down, either because of their liberal, democratic or secular ideas, or their US links, or both. And they may well be watching what happens to CEU with interest.

Five years ago, I visited Egypt shortly after its revolution, and went to speak to students and staff at the American University in Cairo. During that turbulent time, there was a strong undercurrent of popular hostility to the AUC: demagogic TV presenters linked it to Freemasons and Zionists, while taxi drivers saw the AUC campus as a place of decadent liberalism, where “girls are walking around with bikinis and they [students] pay a million dollars per month [in tuition fees]”, as one student recounted to me. It doesn’t help that private US universities abroad often have to charge high fees, meaning that ordinary people can feel excluded from the education they offer.

To be clear, AUC has weathered the challenges of Egypt’s revolutionary period, and there is no reason to believe that US universities everywhere are suddenly vulnerable just because of what is happening in Hungary. Every local context is different. If a US university in the Middle East was threatened by Islamists, this might provoke a much stronger reaction from the Trump White House than action from European nationalists such as the Hungarian government, with whom the new administration is ideologically close in some respects, particularly in their attitude towards refugees.

Still, should the Hungarian government succeed in chasing CEU out of Budapest, nationalists and Islamists alike may wonder if they, too, can successfully make a move against the liberal US university in their backyard.

If you are interested in blogging for us, email chris.parr@timeshighereducation.com

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