Democracy Dies in Darkness

Answer Sheet | Analysis

Why Americans should care that Hungary is trying to shut down a leading university

By Valerie Strauss

April 24, 2017 at 1:58 PM

Demonstrators face policemen as they protest an amendment of the higher education law, outside the university’s central building in Budapest on April 4. (Zoltan Balogh/European Pressphoto Agency)

The Hungarian government is trying to close down the Central European University, a leading private university founded by liberal Hungarian-born financier George Soros.

The school is registered in New York but has no campus in the United States, and the increasingly authoritarian Hungarian government targeted the school by passing a law requiring universities to have campuses in the place where they are registered. The move may have backfired on the government; it provoked mass demonstrations and even threats in Europe to suspend Hungary's European Union membership.

In this post, Wesleyan University President Michael S. Roth explains why Americans should care about the fate of this school.  Wesleyan is a private liberal arts college in Middletown, Conn. Roth's most recent books are "Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters" and "Memory, Trauma and History: Essays on Living With the Past."

Related: [This is why Hungary is trying to close George Soros’s prestigious university.]

By Michael Roth

In recent weeks, we have seen a barrage of news showing the fragility of support for freedom of inquiry and expression. After disturbances at Middlebury College and Claremont McKenna College, Ann Coulter has drawn media attention for being threatened with unmanageable protests at the University of California at Berkeley.

Apparently, being denied the opportunity to hold forth at Berkeley has made her inflammatory nastiness attractive to those who would otherwise ignore her attempts at provocation. The talk has since been rescheduled on campus, though it is unclear when she will speak. As Robert Reich, who teaches at Berkeley, noted, "How can students understand the vapidity of Coulter's arguments without being allowed to hear her make them, and question her about them?"

What's next? Will Bill O'Reilly be called a champion of free speech because some university administration denies him a platform to speak on women's issues?

Related: [Ann Coulter rejects Berkeley’s new invite; GOP students threaten to sue college]

We must recognize the rights of protesters while at the same time ensuring that those invited to speak on our campuses get a hearing. At most colleges, this proceeds without incident, because invitations go to scholars or other public figures accustomed to engaging in dialogue based in evidence and reasoning. However, when entertainers or other celebrities are invited because of their ability to provoke, we should not be all that surprised that some members of a campus community are in fact provoked.

But attempting to shut down speakers is a sign of weakness not strength, and it plays into the hands of those who, in the long run, want to undermine the ability of colleges and universities to expand how we think and what we know.

As I wrote in this space a few years ago:

We learn most when we are ready to recognize how many of our ideas are just conventional, no matter how "radical" we think those ideas might be. We learn most when we are ready to consider challenges to our values from outside our comfort zones of political affiliation and personal ties. … My role as a university president includes giving students opportunities to make their views heard, and to learn from reactions that follow. Debates can raise intense emotions, but that doesn't mean that we should demand ideological conformity because people are uncomfortable. As members of a university community, we always have the right to respond with our opinions, but, as many free speech advocates have underscored, there is no right not to be offended. Censorship diminishes true diversity of thinking; vigorous debate enlivens and instructs.

While we in the United States fret about whether right-wing provocateurs can speak in the evening or the afternoon, a far more dire situation has developed in Budapest.

The Hungarian government is trying to shut down Central European University, a major beacon of research and teaching. The university was supported by the liberal philanthropist and financier Georges Soros and is currently led by Michael Ignatieff, a champion of freedom of inquiry. The right-wing government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has put enormous pressure on CEU but supporters around the world have rallied to its defense. We should, too!

Related: [‘Academic freedom is not negotiable’: American university in Hungary criticizes new law]

Here is a letter recently drafted by Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut with bipartisan support:

We are writing today with concern about legislation passed by the National Assembly that threatens the existence of Central European University, an accredited U.S. institution of higher learning and one of Europe's most renowned universities. Since its founding in 1991, Central European University in Budapest has demonstrated a commitment to rigorous academic study, outstanding scholarly research, and a diverse student body. It has also played an important role in developing cultural and academic ties between Hungary and the United States through student exchanges and study abroad programs that benefit both our countries. In so doing, Central European University has become one of the highest-ranked universities in Europe, bringing new opportunities and prestige to Hungarian citizens.

As you know, the legislation includes a requirement that foreign-accredited universities operate a campus in their own countries. It includes exceptions that would apply to the other 27 international universities in Hungary, so that in the end it applies solely to CEU. This legislation threatens academic freedom and disregards the long-standing relationship Central European University has with the Hungarian people. Cooperation and exchanges in the field of education are foundational elements of the Helsinki Final Act. Instead of shutting down academic institutions that expand bilateral relationships, we should be working together to strengthen them and expand their accessibility.

Ultimately, we fear that this legislation puts at risk academic institutions and academic freedom in Hungary. The Hungarian people have long benefited from Central European University's educational activities in your country. We encourage you to work with Central European University to find a solution that ensures their continued place as an important center of higher education in Europe and a valuable link between our two countries.

When freedom of inquiry and expression is threatened on campus, it will be threatened elsewhere in society. In the long run, it's the most vulnerable who have the most to lose.


Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.

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