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Academic Freedom Front Lines

Western-style universities are challenged in Hungary and Russia. Is one university being punished for its ties to George Soros, and another for its gender studies courses?

March 30, 2017
 
Central European University

The president of Central European University has vowed to fight proposed legislation that imperils the university’s future operations in Hungary. The new threat to the George Soros-founded, U.S.-accredited university in Budapest comes at the same time that the European University at St. Petersburg, in Russia, is fighting an arbitration court’s decision to revoke its license.

“We’re on the front line on an important battle for academic freedom that is now very international,” said Michael Ignatieff, CEU’s president and rector. “Mr. Erdoğan is closing down universities [in Turkey]; Mr. Putin is closing down universities [in Russia]. We very much don’t want Hungary on that list. We want to keep it on the right path.”

The threat to CEU’s continued operations in Hungary has provoked an outcry of support on social media from international scholars under the hashtags #istandwithceu and #defendCEU. The private university, founded in 1991 at the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse, offers master’s and doctoral degrees taught in English in the humanities, law, management, public policy and the social sciences. Its president is prominent internationally as a longtime Harvard professor and Canadian politician.

According to a statement from CEU, the amendments proposed to a national higher education law “would make it impossible for the university to continue its operations as an institution of higher education in Budapest, CEU's home for 25 years.” Specifically, the legislation would require the university, which is accredited in Hungary and the United States, to open a second campus in New York State, where it is chartered -- an action that the university maintains “would have no educational benefit and would incur needless financial and human resource costs.”

The university says that another provision of the legislation would, in effect, prevent it from issuing non-European -- in this case, American -- degrees. “They’re saying you can be a Hungarian institution in Hungary but you can’t be a Hungarian institution in Hungary that grants American-certified degrees, and that’s what we’ve been doing for 25 years. That’s what effectively puts us out of business,” Ignatieff said.

In a letter he sent to students, alumni, faculty and staff Tuesday, Ignatieff described the proposed legislation as being “targeted at one institution and one institution only. It is discriminatory. It strikes at the heart of what we have been doing at CEU for over two decades. We are in full conformity with Hungarian law and have been for more than two decades.”

Hungary’s education minister, László Palkovics, disputed that CEU is being singled out. According to reports from the BBC and the Associated Press, Palkovics told reporters that the proposed law was the result of a review of 28 foreign universities operating in Hungary, of which only one, CEU, lacks a campus in its home country. Palkovics said the government does not want the university to leave Hungary and that it would support a bilateral agreement with the U.S. enabling it to remain open.

"This is not an anti-CEU investigation and not against Mr. Soros," Palkovics reportedly said. "We don't have any concern about the quality of the diplomas."

The New York Times reported earlier this month that the election of Donald J. Trump had the effect in Eastern Europe of emboldening opponents of Soros, the liberal financier and philanthropist who promotes democratic, transparent government and freedom of expression through the Open Society Foundations. Anti-Soros sentiment has been strong in Hungary, where the populist prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has pursued a path of what he has called “illiberal democracy.”

“I wouldn’t want to take this too far, but I’ve noticed a significant darkening of the tone since November 2016,” said Ignatieff. “Before that relations were sunnier; after that they got darker. I think the government has had this in mind for a long time and thinks it’s going to get a green light from certain people."

A statement issued Wednesday by the U.S. embassy in Budapest expressed concern about the legislation proposed in Hungary's Parliament, however. The statement from the chargé d’affaires of the Embassy of the United States to Budapest, David Kostelancik, registered the opposition of the United States “to any effort to compromise the operations or independence of the university.” The statement described CEU as “a premier academic institution with an excellent reputation in Hungary and around the world” and “as an important center of academic freedom in the region.”

“I think if they think the Trump administration is looking the other way, they’re mistaken,” said Ignatieff.

The European University at St. Petersburg

Meanwhile, in Russia, the European University at St. Petersburg is appealing a March 20 ruling by an arbitration court to revoke its license. Another graduate-only institution in the arts and humanities, EUSP was founded in 1994 and offers master's and Ph.D. programs taught in English and Russian.

At issue in the court dispute, the university’s rector, Oleg Kharkhordin, said in an interview, is whether the university responded adequately to alleged rule violations uncovered in a series of inspections over the summer. The university says the inspections were prompted by a complaint against the university by Vitaly Milonov, a St. Petersburg politician known internationally for his role in promoting Russia’s much-maligned law banning "gay propaganda."

Milonov, a member of the Russian Parliament, could not be reached by Inside Higher Ed. But in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor, Milonov said he was passing along complaints of citizens and students, including a complaint about the teaching of gender studies at the university. "I personally find that disgusting, it's fake studies, and it may well be illegal," Milonov told The Christian Science Monitor. "But I'm not qualified to judge, so I handed it on to the proper authorities."

EUSP, Kharkhordin told Inside Higher Ed, is home to “the biggest gender studies center in Russia. Most of the textbooks in the last 20 years are written by our professors.”

The university endured inspections from 11 regulatory agencies and was cited for 120 violations of licensing standards, “most of which,” the university said in a December statement, “related to the presence or absence of certain documents in the university departments.” After the university worked to remedy the concerns, Kharkhordin said, the initial list of 120 violations -- which included things like the lack of an on-site gymnasium and failure to display anti-alcohol literature -- shrank to 32, then four -- and now one. Kharkhordin said the one remaining area of active dispute with the Federal Service for Supervision of Education and Science, known as the Rosobrnadzor, relates to whether the university meets licensing requirements in terms of the percentage of its political science faculty who are doing practical work in their field. Kharkhordin said government officials have failed to provide a clear definition of what they mean by this. The Russian government's English-language press office did not return Inside Higher Ed's requests for comment.

"In our view Rosobrnadzor’s decision is wrong, frivolous and without merit," EUSP's board said in a statement Wednesday. "Moreover, the specific reasons for annulment of the EUSP license are minor, technical and have already been fully remedied."

The revocation of EUSP's license does not take effect until after appeals are exhausted. The board said university administrators and trustees "are working diligently through all official and direct channels to seek to void or reverse the annulment decision as soon as possible."

The Rosobrnadzor previously suspended EUSP's educational license in December, but that suspension was temporarily put on hold by a court in what the university described as a decision "in accordance with the instruction of the president of the Russian Federation." EUSP officials wrote to President Vladimir Putin last November asking that he "instruct the government to review the circumstances of the case and take the necessary measures to ensure that the educational process at the European University is not interrupted."

Apart from the ongoing hearings involving the university's educational license, EUSP is also facing a parallel dispute over its building lease with the city government in St. Petersburg over allegations that it made certain altercations to the palace building it occupies without the approval of the historical commission.

Numerous international universities and organizations have come out in support of EUSP, which, as The Moscow Times has reported, Russia’s own rankings place first among the country's universities in terms of research productivity.

"The European University at St. Petersburg is unquestionably a leader in Russia education and scholarship," the president of the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages, Kevin M. F. Platt, wrote in one such statement of support posted on the group's website. "Its professors are globally recognized authorities in a range of social-scientific and humanistic disciplines, whose publications appear in the most visible and highly rated scholarly journals and presses of the world. The graduates of the EUSP go on to become important and productive professionals in business and government, and also to pursue careers as successful scholars in their own right at other leading institutions in Russia and elsewhere. The EUSP’s programs for foreign students are among the most important centers offering the riches of Russian scholarship and culture to the world."

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