People pass the entrance to Central European University in Budapest on Thursday. (Bernadett Szabo/Reuters)

A renowned university that has become a top target of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s right-wing government said Thursday it will be forced to leave the country — its home for a quarter-century — unless it secures by Dec. 1 a deal to stay open. 

The announcement by the president of Central European University (CEU), Michael Ignatieff, gives the two sides just over a month to end a long-running drama that has come to be seen as a critical test of academic freedom

“Even at this late hour, we are still seeking a solution that allows us to remain in Budapest,” Ignatieff said at a Thursday news conference. “We want to stay here.” 

But Ignatieff also said the government has indicated to U.S. Ambassador David Cornstein that it does not intend to sign the paperwork required to allow the university to stay, suggesting the chances of a breakthrough are remote. 

CEU is accredited in both Hungary and the United States, and the U.S. government has made keeping the university open in Budapest a priority.

In a statement, Cornstein said Thursday that he believes “a solution is still possible.”


Students are seen inside CEU. (Bernadett Szabo/Reuters)

“There is a small window to resolve this, but it needs to happen fast,” he said. “I am working with both parties to continue the negotiations and find an acceptable resolution before December 1.”

Hungarian government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs called the university’s deadline “a political bluff.”

“The government won’t comment on bluffs,” he said.

No major university has ever been forced out of a European Union member state. But CEU’s status in Hungary has been in limbo for more than a year.

The university, founded by the Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros, has become a favorite punching bag for Orban as he has made demonization of the 88-year-old central to his political campaigns. 


Michael Ignatieff, rector of CEU, said at a news conference Thursday, “We want to stay here.” (Bernadett Szabo/Reuters)

Last year, the Orban-dominated parliament passed a law seemingly tailor-made to put CEU’s status in Hungary in jeopardy: It stipulated that foreign universities cannot enroll students in Hungary unless they also offer classes in their home countries. In response, CEU launched an academic program at Bard College in New York. 

But Hungary’s government has refused to officially recognize the arrangement. With the law due to kick in on Jan. 1, the university said Thursday it will have to enroll students at a new campus in Vienna unless something changes by December.

Orban’s unwillingness to give way on the issue is an act of defiance toward his putative allies in the West.

The E.U. has pressed Orban to grant CEU a reprieve, as has a bipartisan group of lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Although President Trump has joined Orban in vilifying Soros, his administration has taken an active role in defending the university.

Unlike the Obama administration, which shunned Orban, Trump has shown a willingness to engage the Hungarian leader. The two spoke by phone in June, and Orban’s foreign minister has been welcomed at the State Department. 

Orban, meanwhile, has appeared eager for a close relationship with Trump, whom he regards as an ideological compatriot. With the administration dangling the carrot of a possible White House meeting, Orban has at least some incentive to compromise on the university.

CEU, home to 1,500 graduate students, has globally top-ranked academic programs, and its campus has been a signature presence in the heart of Budapest. 

Soros founded CEU in 1991 soon after the fall of communism in Hungary, intending for it to help train the next generation of scholars, scientists and leaders as Central and Eastern Europe transitioned to democracy. 

But Hungary has led the region’s shift in recent years away from liberal democracy and toward what Orban has described as “illiberal democracy.” Elected in the spring to his fourth term, the prime minister has consolidated political and economic control and has no serious rivals.

In July, he previewed a cultural transformation for Hungary — and for Europe — in which the “ideology of multiculturalism” and “adaptable family models” would both be discarded. 

If CEU departs, it would be the second Soros-linked institution to announce an exit from the country this year. The Open Society Foundations, Soros’s primary philanthropic project, decamped for Berlin over the summer, with officials saying they could no longer guarantee their staff’s safety amid a government smear campaign in Hungary.  

Gergo Saling in Budapest contributed to this report.