Higher education institutions must convince the public that academic freedom is a right that protects broader society rather than just a “privilege for professors” if they are to resist repression by authoritarian governments, the leader of the threatened Central European University has claimed.
Michael Ignatieff, president of the Budapest-based institution, said that universities needed to be “very clear about how we are seen” and had to “turn the language of ‘academic freedom is our privilege’ into ‘academic freedom is a right that protects us all’”.
“It’s the key move we all have to make if we are going to defend universities in the 21st century. We are not just fighting for a corporate privilege for ourselves; we are defending a counter-majoritarian institution whose function is to serve and protect and defend the whole society’s capacity to know anything at all,” he said. “If we defend it as a corporate privilege, we’re done for.”
Delivering the Burton R. Clark lecture at the annual conference of UCL’s Centre for Global Higher Education, Professor Ignatieff argued that universities must be understood as “counter-majoritarian institutions”, in the same way that a free press and an independent judiciary are seen essential counter-balances to majority governments.
But he admitted that before the future of CEU became so imperilled, he had “never really thought that hard about academic freedom”.
“I took it for granted. Or, if you pressed me, I thought it’s a privilege for professors. It just means they can’t fire you. I mention this because I think a lot of people in the general public think of academic freedom that way,” he said.
CEU has been in a long-running battle with authorities to stay in Hungary after the government passed a law in April last year that imposed a range of restrictions on overseas universities in the country, including the need to maintain a campus in their home country. Academics see the move as a politically motivated attack on its liberal democratic mission.
During a speech that touched on threats to academic freedom in China, Turkey and Russia, as well as in Hungary, Professor Ignatieff said that “one of the institutional dispositions of universities is to…avoid conflict”. But CEU’s “lesson is sometimes you’ve got to fight”, he said.
“Universities should not underestimate their public support. They should not underestimate the power of their network. And there are occasions, if you get really pushed by a government, when standing up can raise the price for the other side,” he said. “You sometimes have to fight a political battle to defend academic freedom.”
Professor Ignatieff said that the “thumping two-thirds majority” for Viktor Orbán’s government in Sunday’s parliamentary election means that the prime minister “now holds all the cards” when it comes to CEU’s future. However, Professor Ignatieff continued, the outcome will depend on whether closing the university “turns out to be sufficiently unpopular inside his own party”.
He added that if CEU cannot remain in Hungary, he would “have to move an entire university across a European frontier to a European state where they can’t screw us around”.
Last month, the university announced that it was in talks to open a branch campus in Vienna amid continuing uncertainty over its future in Hungary, but insisted that Budapest would “remain our home base”.
Professor Ignatieff reasserted that commitment during a discussion after the speech.
“I don’t want to move the entire operation to Vienna at all – because it’s a logistical nightmare and because it’s an admission of defeat,” he said. “I think under any circumstances we will continue to maintain programmes and activity in Budapest.”