George Soros-funded CEU ‘forced out’ of Budapest

Move seen as part of wider campaign by Hungarian government targeting billionaire philanthropist.

Central European University
CEU announced it would begin teaching all its US-accredited programmes in Vienna as of September 2019 [File: Tamas Kovacs/AP]

Budapest, Hungary – Budapest’s Central European University (CEU), which has fought for 20 months to secure its continued presence in the Hungarian capital despite pressure from the government, announced it has been “forced out” and will move to Vienna.

The confirmation of CEU’s departure came on Monday after the university set a December 1 deadline for the Hungarian government to sign an agreement with the state of New York.

CEU’s US-accredited courses are registered in New York, certifying that CEU met the obligations of a law passed last year compelling foreign universities in Hungary to have a campus in their home country.

The university offers diplomas accredited in both the United States and Hungary, but did not offer courses in the US at the time the law was passed.

“CEU has been forced out,” its president and rector Michael Ignatieff said in a press release on Monday.

“This is unprecedented. A United States institution has been driven out of a country that is a NATO ally. A European institution has been ousted from a member state of the EU.”

The university hoped to continue offering Hungarian-accredited courses in Budapest, “but we’re in a lawless situation”, added Ignatieff.

Only one-fifth of CEU’s courses have Hungarian accreditation, officials said.

Responding to the news, US State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said Washington was “disappointed” the two sides had not come to an agreement.

“Since the Hungarian government amended its law on higher education in April 2017, we have worked diligently with both parties to find a solution that would allow CEU to preserve these programs in Hungary,” she said in a statement.

“The departure of these US-accredited programs from Hungary will be a loss for the CEU community, for the United States, and for Hungary.”

Academic freedom

The university has opened a set of courses at Bard College in New York state, which was visited by delegates from the Hungarian government in April.

Saturday saw the deadline expire, despite students of the embattled university occupying Kossuth Lajos Square, where the Hungarian parliament is located.

Students endured sub-zero temperatures in an attempt to force the government to sign the agreement, as well as ensure academic freedom for other Hungarian institutions.

“If this isn’t an attack on a US institution, I don’t know what is,” said Ignatieff.

Observers view CEU as a target of the Hungarian government.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who heads the ruling Fidesz party, has stated his desire to create an “illiberal” democracy and made remarks viewed as racist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic.

CEU’s founder, Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros, is known for his support of liberal causes and organisations, including those that assist refugees, which Fidesz has railed against since the height of the 2015 refugee crisis.

“The Soros university is leaving but staying. It’s common knowledge that a significant number of its courses will still be held in Budapest. This is nothing more than a Soros-style political bluff, which does not merit the attention of the government,” a government spokesperson told Al Jazeera.

A spokesperson for the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs told Hungarian news agency MTI last week: “the ‘campus’ of the Soros university is a wooden shed on the grounds of Bard College” that does not meet the requirements of the law.

Members of the university’s community hoped the US would be able to exert pressure on the Hungarian government.

The US Ambassador to Hungary, David Cornstein, spoke in support of CEU, saying in September that a tentative agreement had been made to keep the university in Budapest. That agreement remained unsigned.

The European Parliament voted to initiate punitive measures against Hungary in September. A report named CEU’s case as a contributing factor for the vote, as well as an alleged decline in media freedom and the country’s treatment of refugees, among other reasons. 

Dutch MEP Judith Sargentini, who helped author the report on the Hungarian government’s alleged attacks on rule of law, told Al Jazeera it was “a dark day for Hungary and for Europe. Strong and independent academia is the cornerstone of a functioning democracy”.

CEU’s departure “shatters the last illusions that Hungary is anything other than an autocracy”, she added.

The university’s administration also expressed concern about the impact the institution’s departure will have on Hungary itself.

CEU Provost Liviu Matei said Hungary’s moves against CEU are part of an erosion of “liberties and the freedom of individuals and institutions in the country”.

While CEU is being “forced” to leave, Matei said he doesn’t “think everyone will leave, or shut up, and this situation will not last forever”.

Source: Al Jazeera