Mass demonstration in front of CEU on April 2. Photo: Kovács Tamás
Last week, the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest faced its toughest battle yet against Hungary’s far-right government of Viktor Orbán. In a rapid succession of events, the government introduced — and yesterday finally voted on — the bill that became known as the Lex CEU. The university now faces closure, and while the widespread international campaign in its defense continues, I noticed a glaring void in my social media feeds that, as an alumna of CEU, infuriated and disappointed me.
For those of us who studied there, or who are from the region, the importance of CEU is self-evident. Western liberal commentators and media, however, are depicting only part of the story. By naming it “Soros university”, emphasizing the role of the billionaire investor as founder and funder of CEU (a “visionary philanthropist” who created “a world-class graduate university to help Eastern and Central Europe recover from the ravages of Communism and begin to build free societies”), they are actually reproducing Orban’s propaganda narrative. In reality, CEU is about so much more than Soros and his primarily liberal — and anti-communist — ideas.
CEU offered an education to those of us coming from the “other” European countries: non-EU, post-communist, Eastern, Central-Eastern, Southeastern, Balkan, call it what you like. To those of us coming from small and unrecognized universities, speaking languages that are not very widely spoken, from working-class backgrounds, from families that could not support us to obtain elite education in order to be accepted in Western academia, CEU was the only way — together with its scholarships — to pursue our goal to one day obtain a PhD and do what we love. Even if that meant doing another master’s degree, even in the same field. After all, as I soon learned myself, an M.A. in History from CEU sounds much more academically appealing than one from Juraj Dobrila University of Pula.
Academically speaking, I never felt as intellectually motivated as I did doing my research at CEU’s History Department. Beside practical advantages, like having access to most internet databases, having free printing quotas (what a privilege, I thought), and paid research missions to archives, I had the opportunity to work with leading scholars in the field of socialism, to compare my experiences with colleagues from other former socialist countries, and I never ever had to deal with the totalitarian paradigm used in studying socialist regimes — nor buy into nationalistic narratives.
Of course, this is a deeply personal experience, but I know of many friends and comrades who have done radical and progressive research in this liberal institution, and engaged in various social movements, within and outside of CEU. The CEU also offered a framework for, for instance, radical gender studies research that wouldn’t have been possible in some more conservative national academic cultures.
CEU also opened its doors to the most unprivileged and marginalized segments of our societies. For years, CEU has had specific Roma Access Programs, and last year it started the Refugee Program, which offers various free courses to refugees and asylum-seekers. I wonder, in comparison to other elite institutions, how many students there are with university-offered scholarships, who are non-white, non-middle class, and first in their families to get a university education? How many universities in Europe opened their doors to refugees, especially in such a hostile national environment?
I don’t intend to idealize CEU. There are a lot of structural and ideological problems that we have to acknowledge and discuss. But I experienced these in all other institutions I’ve been a part of. If I would choose my universities solely on the basis of its progressive rectors, I’m afraid I would not be in academia at the moment. This is part of a broader struggle in Western academia. It is hypocritical to blame it only on Soros. It is the Western neoliberal world we live in.
Finally, I believe CEU will survive in one way or another. It is too big and too important to just disappear. If not in Hungary, then it will be based somewhere else. But what will that mean for Hungarians and Hungarian academia? The mass protest of over 10,000 people on Sunday, as well as yesterday’s protest of solidarity, was not organized by CEU, but by the Hungarian Freedom for Education Movement. The majority of protesters were Hungarians.
If Orbán can so easily shut down such a huge, international, rich and recognized university like the CEU, with all its political, public and academic support worldwide, what can we expect to happen to ELTE or any other Hungarian academic institution if they dare to think and act differently? Who will stand for them? Do we need to await another “Turkish scenario” before we act? All of that because we are against Soros? Today, CEU is not his, but ours.
Source URL — https://roarmag.org/essays/central-european-university-soros-orban/