Breaking a more than yearlong stalemate with the Hungarian government over its future in the country, Central European University announced that it will move all of its American-accredited degree programs to a new campus in Vienna starting next fall unless the Hungarian government signs an agreement allowing it to legally remain at its campus in Budapest before Dec. 1.
“The Board of Trustees at this university is saying there’s still time for a solution -- but enough is enough,” said Michael Ignatieff, the president and rector of CEU, an American-accredited graduate institution that was founded in the wake of the Cold War by the liberal Hungarian American financier and philanthropist George Soros.
CEU’s ability to continue to operate in Hungary was cast into question in April 2017 by passage of a law on foreign branch campuses that was widely viewed as a targeted attack on CEU's independence and academic freedom by Hungary's increasingly illiberal government. CEU says that it has fully complied with the terms of the law but that the Hungarian government refuses to sign a negotiated draft agreement with the State of New York that would allow it to continue to operate in Hungary under the terms of that law.
“A couple of weeks ago, the Hungarian government informed the United States ambassador that they will neither sign nor ratify the agreement that they themselves required of us and that they themselves negotiated,” Ignatieff said at a news conference Thursday. “And they do not recognize the activity that we’re conducting in New York to ensure compliance” with the 2017 law, which among other things required CEU to operate programs in New York State, where it is chartered. CEU now offers programs in New York in collaboration with Bard College.
“This means we cannot operate legally in Hungary as a free U.S.-accredited institution,” Ignatieff said. “We’re being forced out of a country that’s been our home for 26 years. And accordingly from the first of September 2019, CEU will offer all of its U.S.-accredited degree programs in Vienna.”
The decision does not go into effect until Dec. 1. "Even at this late hour, we are still seeking a solution that allows us to remain in Budapest as a free institution," Ignatieff said. "The CEU decision will take effect on Dec. 1 to give the United States ambassador, David Cornstein, one last chance to get the parties together to find a solution that will enable us to stay here in Budapest as a U.S.-accredited free institution. If no solution is found by Dec. 1, we'll move our degree programs to Vienna."
A spokesman for the government of Hungary, Zoltán Kovács, issued a statement dismissing CEU's announcement as a "Soros-style political ploy." Hungary's right-wing prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has waged a sustained personal campaign against Soros, and government officials and communications routinely describe CEU as the "Soros university."
Soros, who sits on CEU's board and is its honorary chairman, has increasingly become a target for animosity from the far right in Europe and the U.S. alike. Earlier this week a bomb was reportedly found in the mailbox of his suburban New York home, one of a series of bombs sent to prominent Democrats in the U.S.
The statement from Kovács does not address whether Hungary will return to the negotiating table with CEU or why it has not signed the draft agreement. Instead, it focuses on the fact that the university, which has dual U.S. and Hungarian accreditation, is registered and accredited in Hungary under a different name, Közép-európai Egyetem (KEE).
"KEE has been delivering courses as a Hungarian institution of higher education. It continues to do so today and, as far as we know, will continue to do so in the future," Kovács said.
"Technically, then, the rector’s declaration of an intent to relocate the CEU’s issuing body to Vienna only affects the U.S.-registered CEU and leaves KEE intact. Taking that into consideration, one sees that this has nothing to do with 'academic freedom' -- and never has -- it’s another wily maneuver, a Soros-style political ploy," Kovács said.
A spokeswoman for CEU said that it is the hope that KEE will remain intact. "However, as currently all of our students are enrolled into American programs, and KEE has significantly fewer programs than CEU, it is unclear whether KEE will be viable in the long run," said the spokeswoman, Ildiko Rull. "We need to seek clarification from the Hungarian government on these issues. We are committed to maintain our Budapest campus as a teaching site, but we don’t know yet in what format." (This article has been updated to add CEU's comment on KEE's future.)
Hungary has been an increasingly hostile environment for CEU under the leadership of Orbán, who has pushed Hungary toward a vision of what he has described as "illiberal democracy." The government recently banned gender studies programs in Hungary, forcing CEU to discontinue its Hungarian-accredited programs in the field (the university said it would continue to offer master's and Ph.D. programs in gender studies under the umbrella of its American accreditation). CEU also announced in August that it was suspending a European Union-funded research project on migration policy and an open learning initiative for refugees in response to a new law imposing a 25 percent tax on immigration-related programs.
In September, the European Parliament took unprecedented action in voting to invoke the first step in a possible sanctions process against Hungary, an E.U. member state, for breaching the union's founding values, including values related to academic freedom and freedom of expression. At the time the European University Association, which has 13 member institutions in Hungary, issued a statement saying that "Hungary is the first EU member state to systematically interfere in university matters and repeatedly violate academic freedom."
"We are not leaving because we want to leave," Liviu Matei, CEU's provost, said at the Thursday news conference. "We are not moving part of our activities at least to another place because it happens to be just 2.5 hours up the river … We are forced to move. We don't have any other opportunity legally, and also I'd like to say this comes at a huge cost. Our costs in Vienna will be much higher."
"But there will also be very significant human costs," Matei added. "If we count everybody at CEU -- students, academic staff, administrative staff and their families -- we are talking about a few thousand people who are forced to move out of Hungary."
The U.S. ambassador to Hungary emphasized, however, that there is still a chance that CEU and the Hungarian government can reach a resolution.
“CEU remains a priority for the U.S. government and has overwhelming bipartisan support in the United States,” Ambassador Cornstein said in a statement. “I understand CEU’s position -- prolonged uncertainty is not sustainable for an academic institution. However, a solution is still possible. There is a small window to resolve this, but it needs to happen fast. I am working with both parties to continue the negotiations and find an acceptable resolution before December 1.”