‘An Unprecedented Attack’

Hungarian Parliament passes legislation that could force university founded by George Soros out of the country.

April 5, 2017
 
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Protest of Hungarian legislation

The Hungarian Parliament passed a law Tuesday that Central European University says could force it to cease operations in the country. CEU officials have described the law as a targeted attack against the university, which was founded in 1991 by the liberal financier and philanthropist George Soros and has American and Hungarian accreditation and dual legal identities as CEU (American) and KEE (Hungarian).

The law was first proposed last week and fast-tracked to passage despite widespread international support for CEU. The measure would, among other things, prevent KEE, the Hungarian legal entity, from offering American degree programs and would require CEU to offer programs in New York State, where it is chartered.

"This is an unprecedented attack from within the E.U. on an American institution," Leon Botstein, the chair of CEU's board and the president of New York's Bard College, said at a news conference live-streamed Tuesday. "It is not only an attack on academic freedom, but also an attack on a longstanding precedent of international cooperation on science and research."

CEU officials have pledged to contest the law and maintain the continuity of the university's academic programs no matter what happens.

"We're determined to stay in Budapest and to continue operations, but we are also determined to serve the students and faculty and staff, which is to say that whatever occurs, we are going to continue the work of the university and secure the employment and education of those students who are here now and those students who will come in the future," Botstein said.

CEU’s president and rector, Michael Ignatieff, described the legislation that was passed as “even worse than the draft that we saw last week” in that it moves up the deadline for compliance. The new law requires that a binding agreement be reached between the U.S. and Hungarian governments by Sept. 1 and by New York State and the Hungarian government by Jan. 1.

Ignatieff said the legislation "makes the absurd request, the constitutionally absurd request, that any future operation of CEU should proceed on the basis of an agreement with the federal government, the government of the United States. I don’t know why the Hungarian government seems unaware of the Constitution of the United States, but the Constitution of the United States makes it clear that only state authorities have jurisdiction in this matter. We have had an agreement with the state of New York signed by Republican Governor George Pataki in 2004, which has been the basis upon which we’ve had a very productive and law-abiding relationship ever since."

Ignatieff said the university would ask the president of Hungary, János Áder, “to exercise his constitutional responsibilities to review the legislation.”

“The basic law of Hungary provides for and guarantees the academic freedom of scientific and research establishments. Some form of words to that effect [are] in the constitution of Hungary in the basic law, and it’s on that basis, and on other bases as well, that we will be asking President Áder to exercise his constitutional responsibilities. And I hope that everybody will notice that in defending ourselves at CEU we are seeking to defend the academic freedom of all our Hungarian partner institutions,” Ignatieff said.

The university, which offers English-taught graduate degrees in the humanities, law, management, public policy and the social sciences and which counts the vice chancellor of the University of Oxford and the incoming chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, among its board members, received an outpouring of support from international academic associations, universities, departments and individual academics since a draft of the legislation was introduced last week (a list of statements in support can be found here).

Thousands of people rallied in Budapest Sunday in support of the university, and thousands reportedly protested Tuesday after the legislation was passed. The U.S. Department of State has also lent its formal support, having issued a statement last week urging the government of Hungary "to avoid taking any legislative action that would compromise CEU’s operations or independence."

On Tuesday, after the legislation passed, the chargé d’affaires of the Embassy of the United States to Budapest, David Kostelancik, issued a statement expressing disappointment at “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 statement from the U.S. Embassy describes CEU as "an important component of the U.S.-Hungarian relationship for 26 years" and says the United States "will continue to advocate for its independence and unhindered operation in Hungary."

The law has widely been seen as part of a wider attack on civil society organizations and liberal values under the government of Prime Minister Victor Orbán, a proponent of what he has called "illiberal democracy." Writing in The Boston Globe, the institution's former president of seven years until last summer, John Shattuck, wrote that the "short answer" for why the government is attacking the university is "politics": "Elections will be held in Hungary in 2018, and Orbán’s self-proclaimed 'illiberal democracy' needs a 'liberal' bogeyman to be this year’s political target of its authoritarian nationalism," Shattuck wrote. "CEU was founded with a generous grant from George Soros. The Hungarian government, having previously focused its political attacks and crippling regulatory restrictions on fleeing refugees, independent courts and free media, is now aiming at Soros and the civil society organizations he has supported to advance democratic open societies."

In a statement, Hungary's Ministry of Human Capacities, which is responsible for education, accused CEU of "misleading the public" about the legislation in an attempt to keep its special "privileges."

"The subject of the legislative amendment adopted by Parliament today is not against the Central European University, and the CEU will be able to continue its operations as soon as there is an international agreement between the two countries which supports this in principle," the statement said.

"The Soros university has enjoyed privileges unavailable to any other institution of higher education in Hungary. Even though its students are only required to attend a single course, the university has been able to issue them with two degrees -- Hungarian and American. This may be good business for George Soros, but in the competition between universities it represents an unfair advantage. The legislative amendment brings this discriminative business practice to an end, closes a loophole and creates a level playing field for universities," the ministry's statement continues. (In a statement submitted to Parliament, CEU said, "contrary to what has been communicated in the press," students don't automatically receive two degrees for a single program of study.)

A separate statement from the Hungarian government quoted Minister of Human Capacities Zoltán Balog: "Not even George Soros’s organizations stand above Hungarian law."

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