Ignatieff: EU defence of academic freedom ‘useless’

CEU president says that rather than relying on ‘outside institutions’, academics and students must stand up for themselves

September 1, 2020

The European Union has been “useless” and “hopeless” at defending academic freedom in Hungary, according to the president of the Central European University, the institution largely expelled from Budapest by the country’s increasingly authoritarian government.

Michael Ignatieff said students, academics and university staff could not rely on “outside institutions” such as the EU to stand up for their autonomy and that they would have to protect it themselves.

Interviewed as part of Times Higher Education’s World Academic Summit, he voiced his frustration at the EU for failing to stop Viktor Orbán’s government from forcing the CEU to decamp to Vienna as part of a wider campaign demonising the university’s founder, billionaire George Soros, who has poured money into liberal causes the world over.

“One of the experiences I had in the European context, is [that] Europe has just been useless on this. I have to be very blunt,” said Professor Ignatieff, a former leader of the Liberal Party in his native Canada.

“I’ve had more fine speeches about academic freedom from European politicians than I’ve had hot dinners, and they haven’t made a damn bit of difference.”

The Hungarian government’s move against the CEU, which began in 2017, drew condemnation from some European leaders and lawsuits from the European Commission, but the actions did not deter Mr Orbán.

The EU’s leading alliance of conservative parties, the European People’s Party, still counts Mr Orbán’s Fidesz party as a member, although Fidesz has been suspended since last year because of Hungary’s slide away from liberal democracy.

Professor Ignatieff stressed that his criticism of the EU “doesn’t make me a Brexiteer, it doesn’t make me an anti-European”.

“But on this issue, they have been hopeless, because they will not challenge the prerogatives – the educational prerogatives – of a member state…this is about sovereignty,” he told the summit, which was held online.

The lesson of the EU’s impotence, argued Professor Ignatieff, was that academics and universities could not rely on “outside institutions” for protection.

“I think academic freedom depends, for its future, on [the] willingness and courage of those who are inside academic institutions – students, faculty, staff,” he said. “It’s us, it’s we, who have to defend.”

However, he saw a glimmer of hope in a case brought against Hungary that is now working its way through the EU’s Court of Justice, which contends that the legislation used to expel the CEU was unlawful.

“I’m confident that the court may find reasons why the law was illegal to begin with,” he said. “If that’s the case, then this story isn’t over. But for the moment, we’re in Vienna.”

Professor Ignatieff revealed that his “worst moment” as CEU president was not being attacked by Mr Orbán but rather seeing students walk out in protest when a conservative philosopher spoke on campus.

“And I thought: come on, guys, you know, sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,” he said, warning of an “increasing reflex” in universities against hearing voices on the political right.

Although Professor Ignatieff did not specify the speaker in question, Sir Roger Scruton, the British conservative philosopher who died earlier this year, was reportedly the subject of a walkout by students at the CEU in 2017 over his past views on homosexuality and gay marriage.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: EU was ‘useless’ in defending CEU

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Reader's comments (1)

Shame on all of us! Ignatieff is a true liberal and needs our support.

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