So said history professor Istvan Rev when I asked him about the Hungarian government’s forcing Central European University out of the country. The graduate school — a private U.S. institution with 1,435 students last academic year that has operated in Budapest since 1993 — announced under duress last month that it would relocate to Vienna.
Our conversation came at the end of an intense three-day external review of CEU that six faculty members drawn from America’s leading universities and I conducted as part of its U.S. reaccreditation process. That this review occurred during the final act of a tragedy that began with legislation passed in April 2017 threatening CEU’s right to operate in Hungary cast a pall over the process.
The eviction is especially painful because CEU is a remarkable institution. Founded by the Hungarian-born philanthropist George Soros and originally established in Prague in 1991, CEU was built to assist the former Soviet bloc in its transition from communism to liberal democracy through a revival of the social sciences and humanities in Central and Eastern Europe. It was to be a place that would train future civil servants, challenge existing orthodoxies and nurture those habits of mind and reason that are characteristic of liberal democracy.
Despite having existed for only 28 years, CEU has catapulted itself into the ranks of the world’s best universities. It has been led since 2016 by an articulate and resolute rector, Michael Ignatieff, who for much of that time has faced the animus of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his allies. They have framed CEU’s fate as the inevitable outcome of Soros’s support for foreign migrants. Had Soros been more restrained in his advocacy for Syrian refugees or the country’s Roma population, they say, CEU’s closure might have been avoided. That is precisely what Andras Lanczi, the rector of Corvinus University since 2016 and an influential adviser to Orban, told me when I met with him last week.
The demonization of Soros — which comes with more than a whiff of anti-Semitism — is a distraction from the reality that CEU’s ouster is a manifestation of Orban’s relentless quest to defang any institution that could check his authoritarian agenda.
Since assuming the Hungarian premiership in 2010, Orban has systematically consolidated his grip on all aspects of Hungarian society as he implements the ethnonationalist vision he proudly calls “illiberal” democracy. Political opposition has been hamstrung, judicial independence undermined and broadcast and print media ownership steered to regime loyalists.
The dismantling of Hungarian democracy has not spared universities. Beginning in 2011, Orban fast-tracked several pieces of legislation that have chipped away at public universities’ autonomy. One of the most pernicious of these reforms occurred in 2014, when the government radically restructured the financial powers of university officials by transferring them to newly created chancellors — appointed, of course, by the prime minister. Until 2017, CEU, as a private university, had remained immune from these attacks. Which is surely in part why it was targeted.
The attack on higher education in Hungary has extended to the venerable Hungarian Academy of Sciences, which has supported the country’s most accomplished scientists, mathematicians and humanists since 1825. This past July, the government announced that it would discontinue the state’s long-standing financial support for the academy’s extensive network of scientific research centers and directly fund researchers on yearly grants — a move that many see as a brazen effort to intimidate the country’s leading scholars and intellectuals.
Orban clearly would have been unlikely to countenance CEU’s continued operation in Hungary, regardless of Soros’s attitude toward migrants. Universities — particularly ones as accomplished and as independent as CEU — unnerve authoritarian rulers because a core commitment to truth and to unfettered intellectual inquiry threatens the authoritarian state’s belief in its own infallibility and its bid to monopolize truth.
When I left Budapest on Friday, the university was busily steeling itself for the move to Vienna.
The Austrian capital is only 150 miles from Budapest, but getting there requires crossing a border where there was once a snaking electric fence dividing Eastern and Western Europe. The ousting of CEU is thus not only a loss for Hungary and Eastern Europe but also for the very project of democratic transition that inhered in the revolutions of 1989 and the forms of U.S. soft power that helped hasten it.
CEU’s forced march from Hungary seems all but certain. One thing might stop it: political leaders in both the United States and the European Union who finally summon the conviction needed to challenge Orban — whose country is an E.U. member and NATO ally — by demanding that he allow a flourishing U.S.-backed and U.S.-accredited institution to remain in Budapest.