April 4, 2017; Reuters
This week, thousands of young people protested a new Hungarian law targeting foreign universities that has been seen as “political vandalism” and an authoritarian attack on academic freedom. The crackdown on civil society mirrors many other countries, including China and Russia, where large-scale protests last week denounced government corruption. Even the U.S. was criticized for efforts to restrict the right to protest. Whither democracy? Is the future of international collaboration at stake?
As NPQ reported last week, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has been creating and riding a wave of nationalist, anti-refugee sentiment to consolidate power. Legislation passed by the right-wing Fidsez government as part of their self-proclaimed “spring offensive” puts the popular George Soros-funded Central European University at risk with tighter regulations.
Under the new law, foreign universities must have a campus located in Budapest and a campus in their home country. CEU does not have a U.S. campus. Further, the law mandates that foreign colleges and universities may only award degrees if the Hungarian government and the government of the university’s home country have an accord in place within six months of the law taking effect.
Soros founded the University in 1991, when “revolutionary changes were throwing off the rigid orthodoxies imposed on Central and Eastern Europe.” The Budapest campus now serves about 1400 students from 130 countries. (Ironically, Orbán was once an ally and beneficiary of Soros’ largesse before moving rightward.)
John Shattuck, a professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, served as president of Central European University from 2009 to 2016. He offered this scathing assessment of the news in an op-ed for the Boston Globe:
The Hungarian government’s attack on CEU endangers universities throughout Europe and is sending shock waves across the Atlantic to the school’s many US academic partners. If the government of an EU member state can undermine a world-class private international university through destructive regulation, no European or American academic institution can be fully protected from the wave of nationalist authoritarian politics that is sweeping Europe and the United States.
Why is this university in particular being threatened? Shattuck argues that Orbán needed a “liberal bogeyman” to rouse his base before next year’s election and has also followed U.S. President Donald Trump’s “protectionist playbook” in accusing CEU of unfairly competing with local institutions.
The debate over the future of CEU is about the defense of democracy, open inquiry, and the pursuit of knowledge. These are at the heart of what a university can contribute to society, and why the academic freedom of CEU matters and must be defended.
The leaders of CEU quickly launched an international campaign to challenge the legislation and the protests made headlines around the world. According to Reuters, CEU Rector Michael Ignatieff was in Washington, D.C., this week meeting with lawmakers and government officials.
Freedom House, an American nonprofit supporting democratic change, went even further, calling the crescendo of suppressions in Hungary a “spectacular breakdown of democracy” in a new Nations in Transit report called “The False Promise of Populism.”
Both Poland and Hungary were exemplars of democratic transformation in the 1990s. The spectacular breakdown of democracy in these countries should serve as a warning about the fragility of the institutions that are necessary for liberal democracy, especially in settings where political norms have shallow roots and where populists are able to tap into broad social disaffection. Despite their apparent maturation, the media, the judiciary, and institutions of democratic representation in Poland and Hungary have turned out to be quite vulnerable, lacking both elite consensus on their inviolability and the necessary public support to turn back partisan attacks.
It seems the only good news here is that the protesters, whether in Hungary or Russia, have captured the attention of the world. Now, we’re all watching.—Anna Berry