Bureaucracy vs. Academic Freedom: the CEU Case

[Edited to add:

Update: News broke today (after I published this post) about the “Stop Soros” law that was just passed by the Hungarian Government. The law criminalizes any person or group who tries to help asylum claimants. This was accompanied by a constitutional amendment preventing any “alien population” from settling in Hungary. The references to Soros and to aliens are pretty clearly dog whistles for Jews. It is worth observing that George Soros founded CEU and chaired the CEU Board until 2007. So perhaps lex CEU is as much about anti-semitism and xenophobia as it is academic freedom.]


Yesterday, I shared with you some scholarship about the Turkish Government’s squashing of academic freedom. Over the course of researching that post, I chanced upon material about the so-called lex CEU and the #IstandwithCEU campaign.

Central European University (CEU) is a graduate university located in Budapest. It is based on the familiar model of being accredited in the U.S. but located outside of the U.S. It also has a Hungarian arm that accredits some of its programs in Hungary. In its 25 years in existence, CEU has established itself as a high-calibre university. Whatever you might think of university rankings, CEU does well on them.

In April 2017, Hungary’s Government — the Fidesz Party, helmed by P.M. Viktor Orbán — tabled proposed changes to Hungarian higher education law, but with some provisions so specifically calibrated to obstruct CEU’s operations that observers quickly concluded that the real purpose of the changes was to force CEU out of business — or out of Hungary.

While those provisions explicitly concern technicalities related to international partnerships, CEU and tens of thousands of allies worldwide — including the Government of Canada and the Canadian Association of University Teachers — who quickly joined the campaign to support CEU say that what’s really at stake is academic freedom.

To understand lex CEU as an attack on academic freedom rather than simply a bureaucracy run amok, it is helpful to see what else Orbán et al have been up to. Here’s a summary from Al Jazeera:

Since its overwhelming electoral victory in 2010, Fidesz has stripped lawmaking of any constitutional guarantees and made it into the mere expression of executive will. It this way, the cabinet has “legalised” large-scale political corruption, and the attack on independent NGOs and press organisations. After the attack on human rights NGOs in 2014, the government is now targeting not only CEU but other organisations related to the Open Society Foundation, an independent NGO fund also connected to George Soros. There is now another proposed law which would force Hungarian NGOs getting international financial aid to register as “foreign agents”, just like in Russia, Turkey and Israel.


…By waging a war on Brussels, NGOs, refugees, etc, Orbán is putting up the appearance that he is leading a strong nation state which is fighting one or another of these threats.

However, the strengthening of national sovereignty means only the strengthening of Orbán and his business clientele, while it leaves the rest of the country vulnerable to poor wages and punitive workfare programmes. Beside his cronies – or “national bourgeoisie” in Fidesz parlance – multinational corporations are also given extensive tax breaks and rollbacks on labour rights.

You can read more about lex CEU, and CEU’s response to it here and here. In the year and a bit since the legislation was tabled, CEU has worked to become compliant with lex CEU, but the Hungarian Government has stalled instead of resolving the matter. Orbán’s government was re-elected in April of this year, a result met with massive protests in Budapest.

Earlier this month, CEU Rector and President Michael Ignatieff (Yes! *That* Michael Ignatieff!) took part in a CEU interdisciplinary seminar on academic freedom. Over the course of the discussion, participants agreed that the lex CEU case — and the manner in which the Venice Commission and the European Commission fought back against the legislation — shows a worrisome trend in Europe of emphasizing procedural and governance matters over academic freedom:

The Venice Commission didn’t say anything about academic freedom,” Professor Renata Uitz of the Department of Legal Studies said in her introductory remarks. “We are talking about formal rule of law objections without explaining what is really at stake.”

Yesterday, we looked at the scholarship that started to emerge a year or so after the Turkish Government cracked down on signatories of a petition by academics in support of Kurds in Turkey’s southeast. The first journal article about the lex CEU case was published mere days after the Orbán Government introduced the legislation. Here is that article in full. (Make sure to click through. I promise it’s worth it.)

The top of the first page of a pdf of an article by Berthold Rittberger and Jeremy Richardson titled "What happens when we do not defend academic freedom." The page lists a single keyword: #istandwithCEU