The University I studied in is being shut for promoting democratic values


Yesterday, the Hungarian Parliament voted to shut down the university where I studied. Voting on amendments to its 2011 Act on National Higher Education, Members of Parliament voted 123 to 38 to deny scores of students like me the opportunity to learn about rule of law, economics, political science, philosophy, and sociology.

Plans were announced last week that would shut down the prestigious Central European University, situated in Budapest, Hungary’s capital. Founded in 1989 to help transition Central and Eastern Europe to democracy after the fall of communism, Central European University (CEU), or Közép-európai Egyetem (KEE), has gained great renown for its faculty, its students, and its alumni. It is considered one of the best research institutions in the world today. Yet, a total of seven days passed since amendments were proposed, the votes expedited at the behest of the Hungarian government. The administration is gearing up for a legal fight against these amendments and will need every supporter they can get.

As a Russian American, I applied to CEU to cultivate the human rights activism I had decided to pursue when I was sixteen and had walked into the NYU High School Law Institute and imagined I was a Supreme Court Justice. After learning about my great-grandfather’s imprisonment by Stalin and the fear my grandmother grew up with never to speak Yiddish at home in anything louder than a faint whisper, I felt a passion toward defending human rights. My classmate, Katarina Medlova, chose to study in CEU after studying the nationalism in her country of Slovakia and wanting to advocate on behalf of minorities. Another classmate, Aleksandar Sekulić, applied to CEU to fight against the human rights violations he had witnessed in Serbia, in hopes of tackling these injustices when he returned from studying. The university had also offered him a hefty scholarship, which was unimaginable for him or his family at the time — no such loan was available in Serbia. Both Aleksandar and Katarina have become ardent activists and fearless leaders for change in their countries.

Kristina Georgieva, another alumni currently living in Budapest, expressed to me that she believes CEU does not belong to its founder, but to its students —

“they are the ones that fill it with ideas and activities and it is their success after graduation that spreads the reputation of the university. Large chunks of these students wouldn’t have been able to afford to study in London, New York, Paris, or any other pricier city. Large chunks of these students come from the former Soviet block — a region where higher education is still influenced by the Soviet style of teaching, where critical and analytical thinking are not explicitly encouraged, but it is in these regions where critical and analytical thinking are needed the most.”

Situated in the center of Europe, where the battle between autocracy and democracy fledges daily, where evidence of victories are seen on its streets, Central European University is today in the heart of a region where it is most needed.

What of the students who are not from Central or Eastern Europe, but from countries where basic human rights and democracy are still being fought for, such as Pakistan and Ethiopia? Hungary, by choosing a ‘Hungary First’ approach to education, limits democratic actors — human rights activists, future economists, and sociologists — from some of the least democratic countries in the world. Debjyoti Ghosh, a human rights lawyer from Calcutta, India, says that for him CEU “put Hungary on the international academic map. A small, young university, it brought the world together inside a few buildings around St. Istvan’s basilica, and it gave us the academic strength, courage, and conviction to go out into the world and fight for what we believe in.”

Renata Kralikova, a PHD graduate of CEU laments,

“It is so hard to build something so complex and important as CEU — an institution which contributed to raising a new generation of social scientists and policymakers in post-communist region and recently also in other parts of the world, where such scientists were and are badly needed. Yet it is so easy to destroy it.”

We do not know what the future of extremism holds — extremism not just of terrorist groups but the extremism of the far right willing to go to any lengths to maintain power — what we do know is shutting down CEU will limit the opportunities and skills students can cultivate, to push back against extremism in their countries, and to advocate for democracy. If Hungary wants to pursue its national interests, it should think long-term: a stable world is a stable Hungary.

At a time when Hungary is vilified for its treatment of refugees, Central European University stands as an example of leadership, providing refugees with free education, preparatory classes for degree programs, and language courses. CEU has established itself as a leader for Roma education in Europe, assisting the most marginalized in gaining equal access of opportunity. CEU serves to show Hungarians what students from all over the world have come to love — a people aware of their history, proud of their autonomy, and optimistic about their future. Refugees and asylum seekers today walk a literal path taken by Hungarians fleeing Soviet persecution in 1956. When their uprising was suppressed, 92,950 Hungarians fled to Austria to begin new lives in Europe, Canada, and the States. CEU honors its understanding for that cyclical history.

Criticisms of the university are nothing new — it has drawn ire from conservatives for decades. Its most recent critique by Hungarian financial weekly, Figyelő, or ‘Observer’, was in a piece titled “Can the Soros School Stay?” The Editor-in-Chief, Maria Schmidt, argued CEU is really the arm of George Soros , CEU’s alumnus and donor, and also the arm of the non-government organization, Open Society Foundations. She argued that the goal of both was neither open society, nor anti-corruption, nor transparency, that it was, ultimately, politics. Schmidt wrote that by buying influence, political and economic actors craft ousters of individuals like Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, which is the true attack on democracy. She failed to mention that Viktor Orbán was a former Soros scholarship recipient.

Hungarian students would be most impacted by the closure of the university in Budapest — they would lose the opportunity to learn from President and Rector Michael Igantieff and other worldwide experts, leaders, and academics like him, to connect with some of the best networks and academic opportunities available today in institutions like Harvard and Oxford. About half of CEU’s faculty and the majority of its staff, which is Hungarian, would lose their jobs if the university of forced to close. It would also mean the 10 billion Hungarian forint or thirty-five thousand US dollars the University contributes annually to the economy would be gone, as would funds that make Hungary competitive in the EU. In Igantieff’s words, the closure would chiefly “damage Hungarian academic life and negatively impact Hungary government’s relations with its neighbors, its EU partners and with the United States. ” From a democratic viewpoint, it would mean an academic institution functioning today in a European Union member country would be forced out of the country for its ideals as a political message: it would mean that academic institutions can be politicized today in Europe for the crime of offering its students an education. As former student Rima Sargsyan puts it:

“the struggle over CEU is not just about that unique university, it is about all universities, and it is about liberal democracy.”

As for why Americans should care about a school located in Budapest, Central European University is accredited in New York. For twenty-five years, Americans like fellow classmate Alexander Hunt chose to receive an education from CEU, ranked 29th worldwide among politics and international relations graduate degrees. Just this month, Alexander Hunt began his career as a U.S. Foreign Service Officer, swearing to support and defend the Constitution. Americans have the power to support the Constitution, the values of liberty and equality, and contact their local representatives to fight for CEU to remain open to generations of future Foreign Service Officers like Alex. A petition has been started on change.org to urge the Assembly not to adopt the amendments targeted specifically at CEU and the Chargé d’Affaires of the US Embassy to Budapest, David Kostelancik, has issued a statement of support, as has the US Department of State. Our former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright has also pledged support to defend CEU. This pressure is vital as the Hungarian government has hinted that a nod from the federal government or the White House can cut plans for closure.

Make no mistake: the pushback currently aimed at Central European University is political, fed on fears and on “alternative facts” rather than democracy, collaboration, and research — things students value the most at CEU. It is influenced by ideology promoted by leaders like Vladimir Putin — CEU was critiqued by Russian state television just four days prior to the announcement of the amendments as Hungary has been growing closer to influence by Russia.

As former CEU student, Margaryta Rymarenko writes,

“About two years ago, I spoke at a demonstration in Budapest..I said back then Ukraine learnt a painful lesson. We realized our rights and freedoms only when we lost them. Therefore, I believe we should not encourage dictators or let them decide for us. We should exercise our rights and freedoms, while we still have them, because the price of gaining them back is usually our life’. What is happening thse days…increasingly looks like Ukraine of Yanukovych times. I hope Hungarians won’t repeat outr sad history and ensure democratic checks and balances on time, before it gets too late.”

Even within the government, the move for closure has been seen as extreme. Szávay István, a Member of Parliament part of the Jobbik party, known for its nationalist rhetoric, stated in his speech regarding the vote that “we are not standing with CEU, but against your way of using power, because we know the next victim will be something else…how is it possible that Zoltán Kovács, who has a PhD from CEU is the spokesperson for the government?”

My graduation day from Central European University

I write about this not only as an alumnus afraid of losing credibility on an education that I have paid for in sweat, tears, and six rounds of examinations, but as an activist for the values the university represents: freedom, equality, and human rights. If CEU is shut down, doors will close on opportunities and on the fight for democracy, not only in Central and Eastern Europe, but in the United States, Western Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

A sample letter addressed to the Hungarian Minister of Human Capacities has been created by CEU and all those concerned about the right to an education should lend their name, in addition to contacting their political representatives whether in the US or in Europe. You can follow the conversation further by following the #standwithCEU webpage, #DefendCEU and #istandwithCEU on social media, or @ceuhungary and @M_Ignatieff on Twitter for actions we can take to safeguard education. Please help ensure that students just like me are able to receive an education in CEU.

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