Central European University's Complicated Legal Geographies
Unsettling Central European University's place in the national, regional (European) and global higher education landscapes.
As has been reported widely, including in Inside Higher Ed, Central European University (CEU) (registered officially under the names Central European University and Közép-európai Egyetem, KEE) is facing some major challenges regarding its future existence. The 4 April 2017 legislative move by the government led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was widely condemned by CEU, as well as by numerous parties across Europe and North America. As the European University Association, with 850 members across 47 countries (serving 17 million students), put it in a press release:
The United States is disappointed by the accelerated passage of legislation targeting Central European University, despite the serious concerns raised by the United States, by hundreds of local and international organizations and institutions, and by thousands of Hungarians who value academic freedom and the many important contributions by Central European University to Hungary.
The Central European University is a successful and prestigious American-Hungarian institution and has been an important component of the U.S.-Hungarian relationship for 26 years. The United States will continue to advocate for its independence and unhindered operation in Hungary.
In the United States, Leon Botstein (President, Bard College), Carol Christ (Provost and Chancellor-designate, University of California at Berkeley) & Jonathan Cole, Professor and former Provost, Columbia University) had this to say in the Washington Post:
If we allow CEU to be controlled exclusively by the Hungarian government and lose its international status and autonomy, all universities in Hungary will suffer. For this to take place within the European Union is unthinkable. It will set a precedent that will prevent higher education from flourishing. Take away a university’s right to select its students and the most qualified faculty, contest the received wisdom of our time, be a critical voice against existing social and economic arrangements, and you no longer have a free university in a democratic society. The purging of the basic features of academic freedom at CEU would create a wasteland out of a fertile intellectual soil. Hungary would no longer attract great faculty minds, nor would exceptional students from around the world want to come to Hungary to learn. There is therefore much to be lost if CEU is forced to defend academic principles of freedom by becoming a university in exile.
The legislation proposed by the Orban government has implications far beyond Hungary. Governments with authoritarian tendencies that stoke intolerant nationalist sentiments tighten their grip by repressing the freedom of universities, suppressing a press committed to free expression and violating the autonomy of its legal systems. Many of us have been there before — Europe under fascism, the United States during the McCarthy period.
- Violation of the rules on the legislative process
- Violation of the freedom of academic research, studies and education
- New requirement to conclude a binding international agreement
- New requirement for foreign higher education institutions to provide higher education programs in their country of origin
- New provision terminating the current structure of cooperation between the US (CEU) and the Hungarian university (Közép-európai Egyetem)
- New provision requiring CEU to change its name
- Insufficient time ensured by the law to prepare for compliance with its new provisions
As for the conditions themselves, the idea that foreign universities can only operate in Hungary based on an international agreement deserves special attention. This condition in and of itself introduces the sovereign to the picture with its might and doubles its weight. It is not only that the sovereign sets a condition, but it also takes the sovereign’s benevolence for a foreign university to be able to meet this condition. If the Hungarian government were not in the mood to compromise with a foreign government on the principles of establishing a university, this statutory condition cannot be met by the organization to which it applies.
Furthermore, a last minute rider to the bill further specified this requirement: for federal entities the Hungarian government is expected to conclude an international agreement with the federal unit in which the university had been accredited, based on the prior approval of the respective federal government. Now, in case such a legal construct (i.e. a state-level treaty with prior federal consent) does not exist in the foreign jurisdiction in question, the condition for the operation of a foreign university set by Hungarian law simply cannot be met. [my emphasis]
The challenges CEU faces have multiplied in just two weeks to include those of political, fiscal, regulatory, organizational, and mission-related natures. And while CEU has been, as noted above, very assertive in analyzing and communicating about these challenges, I'd like to leave readers of this blog entry with three questions to ponder.
First, what are European universities, funding councils, organizations (incl. the EU), and national political leaders, really doing to help resolve this matter. I've been following this debate since it erupted in late March and have been struck by the relatively more assertive (and immediate) public representations made by the US and Canadian governments, including Chargé d’Affaires ad interim of the Embassy of the United States to Budapest David Kostelancik.
There are clear signs that EU representatives and key national political leaders (esp Chancellor Angela Merkel) are finally speaking up. But given that the Hungarian Ambassador to the United States (Réka Szemerkény) is being recalled over her handling of the communications side of this higher education bill and that David Kostelancik is only Chargé d’Affaires ad interim of the Embassy of the United States to Budapest, time is tight to put pressure on and shape the bilateral Hungary-US government relationship about this issue. In short, what European-scale solutions exist to resolve this crisis? Enacting Article 7 of the European Union Treaty, perhaps given the attack on CEU but also in association with other human rights related transgressions?
Second, what will people, programs, departments, universities, and organizations do in a more sustained manner to help support CEU once the flurry of news about this crisis recedes from view, as it will. As we've learned here in Wisconsin, higher education-related crises generate plenty of good will at first (people associated with universities are easily stirred, after all), though months and years later the petitions, blogs, tweets, and letters are but distant memories; mere data for someone's PhD dissertation, a New York Times Magazine article (with spectacular photos of Budapest slipped in, no doubt), etc.
Third, and on a related note, while the hope is that this harsh legislation will be revoked, what will happen if it is not? Plenty of people on social media platforms have flagged attempts to welcome CEU to other cities in Eastern Europe (e.g., Prague). But, instead, are any universities in the United States thinking about how they might be able to help CEU establish, quickly, a US-based branch campus? Bridging typically takes 1-2 years and it takes a full 4-7 years to establish and stabilize a purpose-built campus. For example, are politicians and higher education officials in the State of New York tracking this issue and preparing contingency plans, recognizing that they, and not the US Federal Government, have authority over the higher education sector (a point CEU Rector Ignatieff keeps reminding everyone of)? And are relevant National Resource Centers (NRCs) based at US universities discussing this issue? While NRC staff and faculty are, no doubt, consumed with the Trump budget proposal, including developing provisional lay-off plans for staff if things fall apart this year, there may be a creative way to host a branch campus if the future of Central European University (and Közép-európai Egyetem) depends upon it. Indeed, it might be a vehicle to develop a win-win solution in the era of aggressive nationalism, Orbán/Trump style.
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