Interview with Aine Duffy

The Central European University’s new director of communications talks radical nuns, leaving Ireland aged 18 and why her role is the most exciting in her profession

January 17, 2019
Source: Peter Lorenz/CEU

Aine Duffy is the new director of communications at the Central European University, which announced last month that it will relocate from Budapest to Vienna in autumn 2019. She was previously head of communications and marketing for the Royal College of Art, and interim head of external communications at the London School of Economics.

Where and when were you born?
1968 in Dublin, Republic of Ireland.

How has this shaped you?
In 1986, Ireland was in the middle of a recession and emigration levels were high. I decided to head off to the US just before my 18th birthday rather than go directly to university, one of 30,000 young people to leave the island that year. As a result, I became independent at a relatively young age. Ireland was a very conservative Catholic monoculture at that time. An ardent young feminist, I was desperate to leave. Today, that ardent young feminist would have reasons galore to stay.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
At 21, I finally acquiesced to my parents’ wishes and decided to go to university. I chose the University of Sussex for its American studies BA (in particular for its “junior year abroad”). Sussex then and now was home to a very political student body, and I was elected the students’ union’s women’s officer. Intellectually, I benefited greatly from Sussex’s innovative interdisciplinarity at undergraduate level, and that academic reach and approach was what inspired me to study for my master’s there.

You’ve described your current role as the ‘most exciting in higher education communications in the world’. Why?
I’ve been fortunate to have led on communications for some of the world’s leading academic entities, but this is a challenge like no other: to defend our academic freedom, we’re moving our teaching programmes to another country. It’s an immense project, and it requires a complex mix of strategic internal and external communications. The Dutch MEP Judith Sargentini, author of a report on the Hungarian government’s attacks on rule of law, recently pointed out that “strong and independent academia is the cornerstone of a functioning democracy”. The CEU is a bulwark against closed, oppressive political regimes, and I count myself lucky to be a part of the CEU.

The CEU’s founder, George Soros, has become an increasingly prominent political figure, attracting both criticism and praise for his pro-democracy activities, and the CEU is often labelled the ‘Soros university’. What do you make of the growing anti-Soros sentiment in some quarters?
George Soros is a very handy trigger for the far right, isn’t he? One of the world’s foremost philanthropists, he’s given billions to causes that are anathema to them – education, democracy, equality. As noted by The New York Times in a recent profile piece, “barely coded” antisemitic attacks portray Soros as wanting to dilute the white, Christian nature of white Christian nation states. Viktor Orbán’s party Fidesz came to power on a platform that put Soros at the centre of an international plot to destroy Hungary through migration. Despite the fact that the CEU is an independent, self-governing academic institution, the “Soros university” tag is attached to us by those who would see us vanish from the face of the earth. In Hungary, only the right-wing media and politicians use the phrase.

What are the best and worst things about your job?
Best: playing a part in ensuring that the CEU, with its unique mix of regional roots, global aspirations and genuine international diversity, can continue its vital mission of educating the next generation of leaders of open societies. Worst: I’m a communicator, and while the CEU is an English-language university, I’m frustrated daily by my inability to express myself in the language of the city in which I work and live.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Listen to your dad. My father was an extraordinary man – wise, honourable and greatly respected (he served in the army and, with many tours of duty with the United Nations under his belt, he retired a major-general) – but whenever he tried to give me advice, my stock response was to ignore it, tell him “this isn’t the army!” and do exactly the opposite.

Tell us about someone you’ve always admired.
Less “someone” than a collection of “someones”: many women of my generation have horror stories of their convent school years, but not me. I went to an amazing school run by Ursuline nuns, where I was taught by powerfully intelligent and often quietly radical women – several of whom had marched with Martin Luther King Jr at Selma. I learned from them an awareness of different cultures, values and perspectives, along with a commitment to equality and fairness.

What keeps you awake at night?
The world is becoming unrecognisable because of a global shift towards racism, xenophobia and populism, characterised by fake news, online trolls and, above all, a clampdown on academic freedom. I don’t have children, but if I did, I’d genuinely fear for their future.

What’s your biggest regret?
Packing my possessions in preparation for Budapest, I realised how much I’ve streamlined my possessions in my many moves over the years. And although decluttering is very much a “thing” nowadays, I do rather regret not keeping more memories of my earlier life.

Do you live by any motto or philosophy?
Henry James said: “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.” And what Irish person doesn’t have an ingrained code of hospitality?


David Olusoga is to become professor of public history at the University of Manchester. The historian, broadcaster and film-maker, who presented the BBC’s landmark series Civilisations last year alongside Simon Schama and Mary Beard, has focused his studies on empire, race and slavery. He is also an award-winning author – with his book Black and British: A Forgotten History awarded both the Longman-History Today Trustees Award and the PEN Hessell-Tiltman Prize. “I’ve spent my career working with institutions committed to making history inclusive, expansive and diverse,” said Professor Olusoga. “Joining the University of Manchester is to continue in that tradition.”

Séamus Davis, a world-leading quantum physicist, is joining University College Cork under a government scheme to bring elite researchers to the Republic of Ireland. Professor Davis, who was until recently the director of the US Department of Energy’s Center for Emergent Super-conductivity, is the first academic to be appointed under a Science Foundation Ireland initiative to capitalise on the uncertainty around Brexit and US science funding. Professor Davis joins UCC in a joint appointment with the University of Oxford.

Ken Russell has joined Inverness College UHI, part of the University of the Highlands and Islands, as depute principal (academic development). He is currently a professor of strategy and leadership at Robert Gordon University.

Kelvin Droegemeier has been confirmed as Donald Trump’s science adviser. The new director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy was previously the University of Oklahoma’s vice‑president for research and a professor of meteorology.

Laura McAleer has been appointed associate vice-president for federal and Washington relations by the University of Notre Dame.

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