The Fight For Academic Freedom In Hungary: A Victim Of ‘Illiberal Democracy’

Academic Freedom Protest
Protest after the announcement of CEU's departure from Hungary (Nov 2019) taken by Talia Dunyak

Over the past several years, academic freedom has been under attack by the far right on a global scale, and the once-strong notion of academic freedom in liberal democracies is crumbling. Turkey is imprisoning scholars for signing petitions calling for peace and  professors and universities in Brazil are being threatened under the Bolsonaro regime. Hungary, a small state in Central Europe that is playing a big role in the rise of “illiberalism” and nationalism, is one of many countries whose governments continue to enact regulations that erode academic freedom.

In March of 2017, the Hungarian government passed legislation nicknamed “Lex CEU.” The name for the bill comes from the fact that the legislation targets the Central European University (CEU). CEU has been operating in Budapest since 1993, as both an American and Hungarian accredited institution. The university was founded by Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros, who frequently draws ire from the right-wing activists and politicians in the U.S. as well as Hungary, where the right-wing government of Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party are seeking to control academia as part of their broader push to limit checks on his power from civil society and other institutional checks and balances.

Lex CEU requires that all universities operating in Hungary that offer foreign degrees must run campuses in both Hungary and their home country. Additionally, the regulation requires that an intergovernmental agreement must be signed between the home country’s government and the government of Hungary. The first requirement created a financial burden with little benefit to the university or its academic programs. The second created a bureaucratic means—refusing to sign an intergovernmental treaty—to put CEU outside the law.

Since the first announcement of the Lex CEU legislation, CEU had been attempting to check all the boxes set forth by the new law. CEU opened a campus in New York, and New York State negotiated an agreement with the Hungarian government, which guaranteed CEUs ability to operate freely in Budapest. However, Hungarian officials refused to sign the drafted agreement. On October 25, Michael Ignatieff, the president and rector of CEU, announced that the university would be officially moving to Vienna, unless the Hungarian government signed the agreement allowing the university to stay by December 1.

With the announcement of Lex CEU, tens of thousands hit the streets in protest—both throughout Hungary and abroad. Protesters compared the situation to similar attacks on academia in Turkey and Russia, and warned that this issue of academic freedom in Hungary would not end with the targeting of CEU by Orbán.

Indeed, since the enactment of Lex CEU, a “Stop Soros” law criminalized the action of civil society organizations for providing assistance to illegal immigrants, hundreds of independent media companies have been bought and are now controlled by Orbán’s affluent friends, and changes were made to restrict Hungarians’ freedom of assembly.

At the end of summer 2018, the Hungarian government made another announcement: Hungarian universities would no longer be allowed to offer gender studies as a discipline. This move primarily affected CEU and Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE), the oldest university in Hungary. This move clearly violated Hungary’s constitution which states that “All institutions of higher education shall be autonomous in terms of the contents and methodology of research and teaching.”

Orbán’s attacks on academic freedom have not been limited to foreign universities and gender studies programs. In fall of 2018, the government proposed to privatize Corvinus University on July 1, 2019, making it the first Hungarian university to be privatized. This privatization means that the university will no longer receive government funding, which is predicted to lead to huge increases in tuition for both Hungarian and international students. The privatization of Corvinus may also lead to decreased transparency in the university’s operations.

With the removal of gender studies programs at ELTE and CEU, the departure of CEU to Vienna and the privatization of Corvinus, the student movement that had mobilized in 2017 was reignited. A new group called Szabad Egyetem,which translates to “Free University” was started in November of 2018 to organize students from all Budapest universities in the fight for academic freedom in Hungary.

On November 24, Szabad Egyetem organized a march that called on the Hungarian government to do three things: sign a deal with CEU, end censorship of all academic institutions, and ensure quality, accessible, independent, well-funded education and research. The protest was attended by thousands of people and ended at Budapest’s iconic parliament building, where protesters could be heard shouting “Szabad ország, szabad egyetem”—“Free country, free university.” As the crowds died down, the occupation of Kossuth Tér, the area surrounding parliament, began.

For one week student protesters camped out in front of the Parliament, doing what students do best: learn. The organizers of this “Free University” organized public lectures and workshops—in both Hungarian and English—on history, gender, resistance and social movements, with culture nights displaying controversial films and documentaries, song and dance groups and poetry slams.

After the deadline for a deal between CEU and the Hungarian government had come and gone, Szabad Egyetem planned an impromptu funeral for academic freedom with just hours left on their protest permit.  Hungarian students read eulogies, not just for the education system, but for their own youth and their country, as a coffin with the words “academic freedom” and the names of several universities—CEU, ELTE and Corvinus included—was buried with dirt and adorned with flowers.

The following Monday, CEU made its official announcement—first to students, faculty and staff, and then to the public—that they were moving the operations to Vienna for the start of the 2019 academic year. Following an 18 month battle with the Hungarian government, the official exodus of the university began, making it the first government closure of a university since the Nazis closed the University of Oslo in 1943.

When interviewed after the announcement, US Ambassador to Hungary David Cornstein, whom many had hoped would help encourage Orbán to allow CEU to stay, stated he did not believe that CEU’s expulsion from Hungary would affect relations between the US and Hungary. This should come as no surprise, as Cornstein, an old friend of Donald Trump’s was quoted in  The Atlantic saying “I can tell you, knowing [Trump] for a good 25 or 30 years, that he would love to have the situation that Viktor Orbán has, but he doesn’t.”

Conservative groups in the US have long been on the offensive against universities. The right has often expressed concerns about universities pushing liberal views on students, and in recent years, conservatives have started taking steps to combat this perceived threat. Recently, Turning Point USA created a “Professor Watch List,” which is a compiled list of professors promoting “a radical agenda” and “discriminating against conservative students.” Republican legislators—in both state and federal capacities—have expressed concern over the perceived suppression of free speech on college campuses.

In Hungary, it’s not only universities that are being targeted by the far-right but research institutions, as well. The National Academy of Sciences (MTA), Hungary’s nearly 200-year old scientific society, became the latest victim in Hungary’s quest to control academia and education after the government proposed and passed a new law that allows them to take over research institutions. The enactment of this law marks the end of end of the MTA, which until now operated independently of government control.

The MTA’s network of research institutions is currently being dissolved and the Academy will be required to hand over all of its assets for “free use.” Additionally, the new government-appointed National Council of Scientific Policy will determine which research topics to pursue by research organizations across Hungary. This worrying news comes directly after Orbán has been accused of blocking EU climate regulations.

After taking control of the MTA, the Orbán regime has set its gaze on Hungary’s National Library. A recent proposal to move the collections and send segments of the archives to pro-government research “institutions,” has caused many to fear that the library will soon face the same fate as the MTA: dismembered and government-controlled.

With academic independence throughout Hungary—be it at universities, research institutions, archives or libraries—severely hobbled, and a majority of media companies being donated to one pro-government holding company in winter 2018, the far-right is able to exert increasing control on what knowledge is being spread and propagated within its borders. In a move reminiscent of textbook battles in the U.S., such as the recent debates over the addition of LGBTQ sex-ed curriculum in California or the outcry over antiquated and racist terminology regarding slavery, the Hungarian government has also recently overhauled its high school textbooks to include and promote a Christian nationalistic view of Hungary.

In a letter of solidarity written by the CEU community after the initial attacks on the MTA, the writer warns how the destruction of academic freedom in Hungary will negatively impact the society at large. This is not only a problem for academics, but one that will have long lasting impact for years to come. “In the long run, it would prevent the construction of a knowledge-based society, which should be the primary aim of government policy and without which Hungary would lose its competitivity in the international community. Inevitably, this would lead to a further impoverishment and marginalization of the Hungarian society.”