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CEU, the ‘Soros University’ is here to stay

February 6th, 2017

A weekly suggests that earlier agreements to keep the liberal Central European University in place may have become obsolete after Donald Trump’s victory in America. The rector of the CEU has answered that relations with the government are ‘satisfactory’. A pro-government historian is starkly critical of the CEU, but sees its presence as proof of a vibrant democracy in Hungary.

In their joint article in Figyelő, Zoltán F. Baka and Edit Inotai ask whether the Central European University will remain in place in Budapest, as it represents the very radically liberal views the government side sees as harmful. The university was founded by Hungarian-American investment tycoon George Soros, whose foundation supports a range of NGOs in Hungary and throughout the world, including watchdog organisations that regularly criticise governments from a liberal standpoint. Thus, they write, Mr Soros has found himself in the crossfire in several countries lately. Donald Trump accused him of building a global structure and of having stolen working class money to support big business. Quoting unnamed sources, the authors write that the CEU may well become a target in the near future and influential people would like it to move to another country. They believe that the government is irritated first of all by the identity politics pursued within the CEU. The authors claim that Mr Soros met PM Viktor Orbán last summer and the two of them agreed that the University will remain in place in Budapest. However, they speculate, Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States may have been a game changer, since the Hungarian government need no longer fear a strong backlash from Washington if it tried to get rid of the university. Baka and Inotai also report on an alternative scenario, according to which rather than chasing the CEU out of Budapest, pro-government forces might launch another international university to compete with it.

In a swift reaction to the Figyelő article, Michael Ignatieff, Chairman and Rector of the Central European University wrote to the editor in chief, that several allegations and assumptions contained in the article are misguided. He describes the importance of his university for Hungary as an institution spending almost 10 billion Forints every year in the country and employing a large number of Hungarian staff members. He also points out that the CEU is not a political organisation, nor is it an NGO pursuing certain specific goals that might be controversial. It pursues education and only education, in co-operation with several international partner universities. He strongly denies the view that the future of his university is in jeopardy. The CEU, he concludes, has had ‘professional working relations’ with all successive Hungarian governments over the past twenty-five years, ‘including the current administration’. His expectation is that good relations will be maintained in the future.

On Látószög, historian Mária Schmidt[1] finds stark inconsistencies in how Mr Ignatieff interprets the mission of his university. The mission statement of the CEU says that it endeavours to teach the principles of an open society to its students, who will then put those values into practice once back in their native countries. That statement contrasts sharply with Mr Ignatieff’s words according to which his university does not pursue political goals. Moreover, in a speech in which he outlined his own programme for the CEU, Mr Ignatieff himself explained the University’s role in quite different terms. It has never been so important for the CEU, he said, to stand up for open spirits and open borders as it is now ‘when political forces proclaim wrath and exclusion”. Schmidt remarks that these are very political considerations. She believes that the CEU is “George Soros’s outpost in Hungary”. She herself was a Soros grantee for three years in the 1980s when she conducted research into the history of 20th century Hungarian Jewry, at a time when the foundation “didn’t only support communists”. Mr. Soros is now busy trying to topple President Trump of the United States “but has made similar attempts in Hungary as well” she writeas. That he continues to be free to do so, Mária Schmidt concludes, is proof of the strength of Hungary’s democracy.

[1] Mrs Schmidt has been the main owner of  Figyelő since early December 2016

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