Central European University struggle is a warning for academic freedom everywhere

When I chose to study abroad in Budapest, Hungary this semester, I knew I would be studying at an esteemed graduate university and learning about Eastern European politics and refugee issues. But I had no idea I would also be getting a crash course on what happens when a government suppresses academic freedom.

As a student in the United States, I never gave much thought to academic freedom because mine was never in danger of being suppressed. Academic freedom was just a buzzword used in debates about freedom of speech on campuses, and it had no real consequences in my mind. It wasn’t until I had the experience of attending a university that is being forced from the country due to the politics of its founder that I realized how possible it is for universities to be influenced by the governments that preside over them. Central European University has long been a symbol of open society in Eastern Europe, and the battle it has lost with the government should be a warning to academic institutions throughout the world.

Central European University was founded by George Soros, the prominent Hungarian-American billionaire philanthropist, in the Czech Republic in 1991, just after Hungary gained independence. The university has one of the most diverse international student bodies in the world and is accredited in both Hungary and the United States.

Soros, a Holocaust survivor in his late 80s, has been a political target for decades because he financially supports progressive candidates and institutions. Hungary’s nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán labeled Soros an enemy of the state because of his support for refugees and asylum seekers entering Europe. Soros is considered to be Orban’s “personal nemesis,” as put by The Washington Post.

For several years, the Central European University has been engaged in conflict over accreditation with Orban, largely because of the university’s affiliation with Soros. The government ran a campaign against the university in pro-government press in 2017 and then shortly after, introduced a law requiring the school to establish academic activities in the United States. The university complied with the law and set up a center at Bard College in New York, but the government refuses to acknowledge the university has met the requirements. Despite the efforts of U.S. Ambassador David Cornstein to sway Orban, the university will be barred from enrolling new students in its American-accredited programs as of Jan. 1. As a result, the school was forced out of the country and will move its programs to Vienna, Austria next fall, although current students and some research operations will continue on at the Budapest campus.

With academic freedom being threatened around the world, it is time for the University to continue to prioritize that commitment. During his inaugural speech in 2017, University President Thomas LeBlanc emphasized the importance of academic freedom, saying that “in any classroom, in any text, there’s no such thing as a final answer, and there’s no such thing as an unthinkable thought.” Faculty demonstrated their commitment to freedoms, too, in 2017 when the Faculty Senate urged the administration to pass clearer guidelines protecting freedom of expression on campus and in the classroom.

It is essential that American universities – including GW – are vigilant and unwavering in their pursuit of free academic discovery and debate. This instance in Hungary is an enormous loss to the city of Budapest and a blow to academic freedom in the country and the world. With the exception of allowing hate speech and other violent expressions on campus, there should be no idea too dangerous to be discussed at GW.

Unsurprisingly, Central European University is not the only Hungarian institution that is struggling with censorship and suppression under Orban’s government. Public universities are being privatized and defunded and press freedom is under attack, as well.

Although my study abroad experience has been rather unconventional, I am glad I attended Central European University at this pivotal time in Hungarian history. Beyond all that I learned in the classroom, I learned about the realities of fascism and how hard it can be for one small university to stand up to the government. I will return to GW in January with a renewed respect for intellectual freedom and a firsthand understanding of the bravery that goes into defending one’s right to learn freely.

Hopefully, this can serve as a warning that freedoms must be fought for and that we should not lose sight of the importance of open scholarship and open society.

Matilda Kreider, a junior double-majoring in political communication and environmental studies, is a Hatchet opinions writer.

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