CEU: a bastion for democracy in an illiberal world?

Twenty-five years after it was founded to promote openness in the post-Soviet era, the Central European University is grappling with new threats to democracy

March 30, 2016
Man using pickaxe to break down Berlin Wall, 1989
Source: Alamy
Changing world: ‘there is certainly no one formula for an open society’, says CEU’s president John Shattuck

In 1991, new democracies were emerging across Central and Eastern Europe after the collapse of communist regimes across the region. Two years earlier, the US political scientist Francis Fukuyama famously suggested that the world had reached “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government” in his essay “The End of History?”

During this triumphal year for democracy the Budapest-based Central European University (CEU), created to help ease the transition from communism in the region by studying open society and human rights, was founded.

Twenty-five years on, the university has about 1,400 master’s and doctoral-level students and nearly 400 faculty members from more than 130 countries. Set up to train “future leaders”, it specialises in public policy, law, management, the humanities and social sciences.

But its mission to promote an “open society” looks increasingly imperilled by events. Nationalist governments are on the ascendancy in Poland and Hungary, democracy is failing in Russia, Islamic terrorism is menacing Europe and the Middle East, and authoritarian China is challenging the United States for economic supremacy.

Even Professor Fukuyama has changed his emphasis: his latest book, Political Order and Political Decay, while still arguing democracy’s case in places, puts just as much stress on an effective state and the rule of law as the ballot box. 

The principles of academic freedom and open society are today even more “under assault” than they were when the CEU was founded, John Shattuck, president and rector, told Times Higher Education.

The fact that the world has failed to converge towards liberal democracy since the fall of the Soviet Union has “broadened our inquiry”, he says, and spurred the CEU to research illiberal as well as liberal governments.

What constitutes an open society is not as “set and understood” as it once was in the early 1990s, Shattuck, a former US assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, says. “There is certainly no one formula for an open society.”

Since its foundation, the focus of the university has broadened away from advancing an open society in Central and Eastern Europe. “That was the mission at the beginning,” he explains. “But as we’ve grown we’ve become truly global in our scope.”

Half the university’s students still come from the region, but the rest are from North America, Western Europe and increasingly from South America. About 15 students a year come from China.

Many of the CEU’s courses are focused on public policy and creating “future leaders”, Shattuck says. Alumni go on to become ministers, ambassadors and work for international organisations.

The CEU boasts a €550 million (£434 million) endowment, and was initially funded by donations from the financier George Soros, who has given extensively to promote democracy in the countries orbiting the former Soviet Union.

A backer like Soros and a pro-democracy mission might not make the CEU the best training ground for students hoping to land a job at, say, the Kremlin after graduation.  

“It can be challenging for some of our students when they return,” Shattuck admits. “We have two graduates in Azerbaijan who are currently political prisoners” after entering the political fray there, he says.

However, about half a dozen CEU alumni are now serving in the government of Hungary’s controversial, and arguably pretty illiberal, prime minister, Viktor Orbán. Asked whether he is proud of them, Shattuck says: “I think it’s a good thing that we have a broad range of alumni”, and he believes it is important that the CEU is “not seen to be uniform” in the outlook of its graduates.

“The most important thing we teach our students is critical thinking,” he insists, a skill that could be seen as the exact opposite of the doctrinaire Marxism that prevailed in the region’s universities before the demise of the Soviet bloc. “We’re not trying to indoctrinate anyone, quite the contrary.”

The CEU is now tackling Europe’s latest challenge – the millions of migrants that have arrived from the Middle East and elsewhere. It provides a weekend programme of English language training, “cultural orientation” and regional history for registered refugees in Hungary as a way of helping them integrate.

“The world is in the process of being transformed by these new migrations,” says Shattuck. Over the next five years, he wants the CEU to become a major centre for the study of migration.

Two days after speaking to THE, Shattuck delivered a speech at the University of Cambridge where he forecast an “extended winter for democracy”.

But he still found reasons for hope, ending by quoting former Czech leader Václav Havel: “I’m not an optimist because I don’t believe all ends well. I’m not a pessimist because I don’t believe all ends badly. Instead, I’m a realist who carries hope, and hope is the belief that democracy has meaning, and is worth the struggle.”



Print headline: CEU’s democratic mission under threat

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