The Hungarian government’s apparent determination to close the Central European University (CEU) brings shame to Hungary’s efforts to forge a flourishing democratic state. It also tragically reflects authoritarian trends in Russia, Turkey, Poland and Central Asia.
Neither a petition signed by 50,000 academics and private citizens from around the world nor an open letter signed by 500 senior academics and 20 Nobel laureates was able to prevent the Hungarian parliament passing a law last week requiring foreign universities in Hungary to have a campus in their home countries, banning them from awarding Hungarian degrees without agreements at national government level, and reinstating work-permit requirements for non-EU academics.
Critics of the move have rightly focused on the threat to academic freedom and university autonomy, research, and teaching. There is, however, another important story: what CEU means to the people who attend it. I want to tell that story.
In the process of retiring from the University of Pennsylvania, I visited the American- and Hungarian-accredited institution in central Budapest and fell in love with it. This had nothing to do with the usual goodies offered when you leave one American university to go to another: greater prestige, more money, research support, higher pensions, fewer teaching hours, support staff or sabbaticals. What mattered was CEU’s commitment to democratic and open societies, to rigorous scholarship, to creative teaching and to making the world a better place.
My professional career had been spent studying and teaching at elite universities, including Columbia, Harvard and Stanford universities. But nothing prepared me for what CEU was accomplishing.
There is no majority nationality among its students. The largest proportion – 23 per cent – comes from Hungary, with the next largest from the US, Romania, Russia and India. The numbers from Asia, Africa and Latin America are increasing. This diversity is a testament to the desire of students worldwide for a place of learning that is value-committed and that offers a welcoming, safe and intellectually vigorous environment.
What makes CEU so special is the daily interactions among people with strong national identities and deeply held cultural values, who reach across lines that increasingly divide people to forge greater understanding, seeking shared ways of speaking and acting together. The goal is not a malleable plastic globalisation, in which we can become whatever shape fits the current situation. The goal is rather to mould strong individuals who draw strength from one another.
How this works can be gleaned from a course on higher education and public policy that I recently taught with Norbert Sabic, a strategic planning assistant at CEU. Norbert is fluent in Serbian, Hungarian, English and German. Since the Austro-Hungarian empire, his family has lived in six countries – but always in the same town. Our small seminar was composed of 10 students from seven different countries – Hungary, Kosovo, Chile, Colombia, Serbia, Slovakia and Cameroon. Three of the students were Roma and one was a refugee. Together we took up such questions as: Who should go to university? How should higher education institutions be funded? How should they be governed? What does the digital revolution mean for teaching and learning?
The diversity of the students allowed us to draw on different experiences; explain, criticise and defend our home countries. We were also able to establish ways to compare solutions to increasingly difficult problems and to appreciate what we share.
This course is not unique at CEU. It reflects the university’s essential message: that in a world that seems ever more committed to narrow, nationalistic identities and simplistic solutions to complex issues, it is necessary to hold to our values but to use them as the basis for common understanding.
It has been more than 50 years since I first stepped on to a university campus. At each stage, I have felt enlarged by the opportunity to learn and to teach. But CEU has taken me (and thousands of others) beyond anything I have experienced previously. It has taught me that learning through diversity can be accomplished. It would be a tragedy if that legacy were prevented from growing into the future.