Hungarian protesters rally against a new higher education law outside the presidential palace in Budapest. (Attila Kisenede/AFP via Getty Images)

When Michael Ignatieff took over as president and rector of the Central European University in Budapest in 2016, he knew he'd be busy. But he didn't anticipate this.

“As I sit here and talk to you,” he told me last week, “my cellphone is pinging with another president somewhere in the world saying, 'I stand with you.' When was the last time a university president could look out his window and see a thousand demonstrators yelling, 'We stand with you.'”

That outpouring of support comes in response to an existential threat. Last week, Hungary's parliament passed legislation that would make it almost impossible for the Central European University to operate in the country. The measure, decried by academics the world over and signed into law on Monday, appeared designed to punish CEU — and, by extension, founder George Soros, a Hungarian American philanthropist who promotes liberal political causes. It's also one more example of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's turn away from democratic norms.

“The government is attacking a free institution because it doesn't want free institutions,” Ignatieff said in the interview. “But free institutions are key to democracy.”

The U.S. Embassy in Budapest said it was “very concerned” about the new measure. It described CEU as a “premier academic institution” that “enjoys strong bipartisan support.”

The Central European University was established in 1991. The university, which is accredited in the United States and Hungary, attracts students from across the world and awards U.S. master's degrees in all kinds of subjects, including law, history and languages (An American degree is a highly valued commodity in much of the world.) Nearly 1,400 people from 130 countries are enrolled there. Reached by email, students and alumni described CEU as a special place where critical thinking and diversity are celebrated.

Jenya Anichenko, a Russian-born CEU graduate, calls it “the most formative year in my life. It opened the world to me and made me feel responsible for this world.”

“When I got my degree, Russia was still climbing out of economic disarray,” Anichenko, executive director of the Sitka Maritime Heritage Society in Alaska, wrote. “My family would have not been able to send me abroad for any educational opportunities. The financial support the Soros foundation provided was essential factor for me being able to complete my degree.”

Among other things, the new law would force the university to change its name and make it much harder for scholars from other countries to teach there. It also requires foreign universities in Hungary to have campuses in their home country. CEU has no campus in the United States.

Orban, who considers the Hungarian-born Soros an ideological rival, defended the measure in “Hungary first” terms. He said that CEU is “cheating” and that it has an unfair advantage over Hungarian universities. “There is competition among universities, and it is inexplicable why we should put our own universities at a disadvantage … while securing an unfair advantage for the foreign university,” he said on the radio.

When the new law was introduced in parliament, it sparked national and international criticism. A few days after parliament passed the legislation, more than 70,000 people marched across the Danube to support CEU. It was one of the largest protests under Orban's seven-year-old rule. University officials in Hungary and around the world decried the perceived assault to academic freedom. “CEU is a very significant scholarly center,” Laszlo Lovasz, president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, said in a statement. “It is good that it operates in Budapest.”

Last week, Ignatieff traveled to Washington. He met with officials at the State Department, at the White House and in Congress and asked for their support. His argument: Thousands of U.S. institutions run American programs overseas. “If the prime minister of Hungary” — a NATO ally, Ignatieff is always careful to point out — “gets away with shutting us down, what kind of example will that set? Who else is going to try that stunt.”

“As I have said before, we are willing to sit down with the Hungarian government to find a solution to enable CEU to stay in Budapest and operate as we have done for 25 years,” Ignatieff said in a statement. “However, academic freedom is not negotiable. It is a principle that must form the basis of any future agreement.”

But the appeals and criticism fell on deaf ears. On Monday night, President Janos Ader signed the measure into law. Shortly after, hundreds gathered outside his office in protest.

“We have a wonderful community of diverse people who believe in constructive and democratic approaches to problems — unlike the government,” Gaspar Bekes, a CEU student, said in an email. “This is the reason why we are under attack. The Orbán regime fears critical thinking, because its practitioners question their actions constantly. CEU is one of the last bastions of independent thought.”