Ignatieff condemns West for failure to protect CEU

University president accuses US and EU of capitulating to populists

June 13, 2019
Source: istock

Michael Ignatieff, the besieged president of Central European University, blasted Western powers for not doing enough to prevent Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán from forcing his institution out of Budapest.

Addressing Worldviews 2019, a conference in Toronto focusing on higher education and the media, Professor Ignatieff said Mr Orbán’s attack on CEU should be understood as part of a wider global surrender by Western leaders to populist manipulators.

“We think it’s an outrage,” Professor Ignatieff said in a video presentation from Budapest, “that neither the United States government nor the European Union has done anything to stop an EU member state and a Nato ally from throwing a free university out of Budapest.”

Professor Ignatieff was scheduled to participate in person in Toronto, conference organisers said, but instead had to attend a meeting in Berlin on the future of CEU.

CEU is a US-accredited, graduate-level, not-for-profit university founded by the philanthropist George Soros in 1991 in a bid to help eastern Europe in its post-Soviet recovery.

But Mr Orbán, who took office in 2010, has branded Mr Soros an enemy of his anti-immigrant authoritarian style of government, and has imposed a series of escalating hurdles to CEU’s continued existence in Budapest. The Trump administration initially pledged to stand by CEU, but since then has moved to embrace Mr Orbán.

Because of that pressure, Professor Ignatieff, a former Canadian MP and Liberal Party leader, is reluctantly taking steps to move CEU to Vienna, although the institution was exploring whether a last-minute deal with the Technical University of Munich might allow it to stay in Budapest.

Some 80 per cent of the media in Hungary is now government-controlled, Professor Ignatieff said. “We’re in a very difficult position, not just in Hungary but around the world,” he told the Toronto conference, which was organised by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations.

Professor Ignatieff said the situation in Hungary and many other nations should convince academics of their shared cause with the courts, the media and independent regulatory agencies.

“All of these institutions could be called counter-majoritarian institutions – they’re essentially in a democracy to counter the tyranny of the majority,” he said.

“For this role, we’re attacked as elitist – and some of the charge is deserved, in the sense that unless we open our doors to everybody who’s got the grades, we will be seen as elitist.

“But we should be proudly elitist in our defence of knowledge, in our defence of the disciplines that it takes to get any grasp of social reality at all.”

That is the measure that matters, Professor Ignatieff said. “We should be accountable, because we serve and try to help the societies who pay our bills,” he said. “But we should also stand up for ourselves, stand up for the disciplines we teach our students, stand up for the peer-reviewed research that we provide for public debate.

“We should stand up for the fact that in a world that is increasingly ruled by unreason, we are the stubborn, steady purveyors of reason in public debate.”


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Reader's comments (2)

I have a great deal of sympathy for Professor Ignatieff and his institution. However I do not see the withdrawal of support for CEU as an attack on academic freedom as such. As an adviser to the Venice Commission in 2017 representing DGII of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg I undertook a detailed analysis of both the Hungarian law and Hungary’s international obligations, and studied the background to all US institutions operating in the EU. There was no doubt in my mind that it was open to Hungary if it so wished to impose restrictions on non-EEA institutions seeking to operate in the country. CEU is a US-registered and accredited institution. The point was not so much legal as moral. As the CEU was not only permitted but had been encouraged by previous governments to operate in the country for some 25 years under a unique status, it seemed to the VC that it was disproportionate to suddenly require it to change its status to what was in effect a branch of a previously non-existent tertiary education institution operating in the US. Quite clearly the issue was highly political and I am sure that in normal circumstances with goodwill it could have been resolved. Some negotiated changes would have been required in its governance, funding and the establishment of closer links with a recognised and accredited US university. But the circumstances unfortunately were not normal. Personally I do not see how the US government could have done more than it did, which was helpful, given that it was an issue for the State of New York, which was also very helpful, and the only intervention I saw from the EU Commission seemed to me to be unrealistic. The UK government spoke up in support of CEU but I don’t see what it could do given the legal position. Anyway let us hope CEU succeeds in Vienna.
CEU was registered in Hungary and got chased out of the country - it is not a non-EEA institution per se. This is also the reason why there is an ongoing EU infringement procedure against the country. What becomes more and more visible, though, is that many Western commentators, especially in academia, simply do not understand how autocracies work, and how they oppress academic freedom and limit freedom overall in the legal system. I believe these nihilistic, relativist arguments are the reasons of inactivity - they can be used by EU institutions perfectly to explain inaction.