Hungary Passes Law Targeting Soros-Founded University
Central European University was meant to train democratic thinkers. Now, Hungary is moving to shut it down.
A legal change in Hungary means that a university founded by George Soros to foster democratic thinking in this Central East European country will be shut down.
Hungary’s parliament on Tuesday voted 123–38 in favor of the measure, approving it the same day legislators were first given an opportunity to debate it. Under the change, foreign universities can only exist under a bilateral agreement between Hungary and the institution’s “home country,” where they are required to have a campus.
Many see the new law as targeting Central European University, the Budapest-based university that was founded by Soros in 1991 to train democratic thinkers as the country emerged from decades of communism. The accreditation of American institutions is in the hands of the states, not the federal government. (CEU has accreditation from the state of New York and Hungary.) It’s unlikely the U.S. federal government would hash out an agreement with Hungary to allow American universities to operate there, Michael Ignatieff, CEU’s president and rector, noted. (It is also somewhat economically and practically infeasible that a university that quite literally has “Central Europe” in its name would open a campus in, say, Poughkeepsie.)
Perhaps not coincidentally, the legal change comes as Hungarian organizations funded by Soros are also under threat of legislation that would make “foreign-funded NGOs” meet more stringent funding-registration requirements.
Reports about the measure last week were met with outcry. Thousands took to the streets of Budapest to protest the legislation over the weekend. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban responded on Friday by calling the university “a cheat” (the Hungarian government later said CEU had acted in accordance with Hungarian law). The parliament was undeterred. In fact, the protests likely just inspired them to push the vote up so that protesters could not build momentum, argued Milan Nic, senior fellow at the German Council of Foreign Relations and a CEU alumnus.
Ignatieff vowed to fight the law, saying that it is unconstitutional. Hungarian basic law, he said, has a clause that protects academic freedom. He noted institutions not only abroad but also in Hungary, such as the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, have spoken out for CEU, and have done so for this reason — that this is about not just CEU, but the freedom of higher education institutions in Hungary.
Ignatieff hopes Americans will respond — the Orban government, he argued, is making an example of an American institution, which can hardly sit well with Trump’s “America first” administration. But “America first” is part of what emboldened Orban, Nic said. He did this, because “he thinks the U.S. will just not care,” he said.
CEU will also try to call in the European leaders, who are likely already alarmed by the political tone in Hungary. The Orban government isn’t just shutting down CEU, it’s shifting broadly to a harder nationalist line ahead of next year’s elections. It is currently campaigning for a national consultation to “stop Brussels” (though not leave the EU). In a new Freedom House Nations in Transit report, Hungary received the worst ranking in the Central East European region.
But those leaders may be unlikely to do anything more than be concerned. A Hungarian is the EU commissioner for education. And what European leader, in trying to preserve unity between the remaining 27 EU countries in time of Brexit, is going to pick a fight over Hungary? “Orban sees a space to do this when there is a lot of distraction,” said Nic, who added, “It will be a huge problem for the EU and it can’t do much.”
The Hungarian government, for its part, does not admit that the law was in any way an attempt to target CEU. “Just as any other institutions in Hungary, CEU must abide by the law. Nobody stands above the law in Hungary.” a spokesperson for the country’s foreign ministry said in an email. “Any other interpretations are symptoms of political hysteria,” which the staffer blamed on opposition parties “having the support of self-styled non-governmental international networks funded by George Soros.”
Photo credit: ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP/Getty Images