Hungary’s southern border has been closed off by a guard-patrolled razor wire fence, four metres high and 523 kilometres long, since 2015. The handful of refugees who make it across are held indefinitely in shipping containers, and routinely denied food and healthcare. And since last June, offering medical, legal, or humanitarian assistance to asylum seekers in Hungary is a criminal offense. Even working with any organisation that campaigns for their rights could land you in prison for “facilitating illegal immigration,” though few migrants come to Hungary with any intention of staying; the country is not a final destination but an entry point to the European Union, a corridor to safety.
A couple of hundred kilometres away, in the heart of Budapest’s 5th district, amid upscale restaurants, tacky souvenir shops and a steady stream of tourists, a different category of foreigners is hosted. At the Central European University, students from over 100 different countries have come to Hungary for a rigorous, American-accredited education. Its newest building, opened in 2016 as part of a 34-million-euro campus redevelopment project, boasts a sleek glass-and-stone design and a library that is home to the largest English-language collection in Eastern Europe. The CEU brand is a gleaming beacon of progress and modernity, innovation and sustainability, openness and connectivity. From its spacious, leafy roof terrace, you can watch the sun set over the Danube, or gaze out at the famous needle-sharp spires of the Hungarian Parliament.
These lofty surroundings seem a million miles from the shipping containers and the razor wire and the police brutality. But CEU’s wealth and prestige has proved inadequate protection against Viktor Orbán’s sustained attack on all things foreign. Inside that imposing needle-spired building, the far-right Fidesz government worked steadily to force the university out of Hungary. In April 2017, a bill dubbed “Lex CEU” was fast-tracked through parliament. Without making specific reference to CEU, the law was transparently designed to target that institution. After more than a year of mass protests, legal battles, international appeals, and attempts at compliance, all of which met with the brick wall of a Fidesz supermajority, rector Michael Ignatieff announced in early December that the university will move its operations to Vienna next September.
CEU has become the protagonist of several familiar stories—about the battle between liberal democracy and nationalist populism; the defence of knowledge against the forces of ignorance; progress and modernity against a backslide into a dark past. In Hungary’s version of these global narratives, the university is viewed as a red line, a last stand, a point of no return. A razor wire fence on the EU’s outer edge is one thing—unremarkable, part of the quotidian spectrum of violence that marks Europe’s borders. But throwing an American university out of an EU country? This is something unprecedented.
Founded by George Soros in 1991, CEU was always a more overtly politicised university than most, its existence explicitly tied to the post-socialist projects of liberal democracy, European integration and “open society”. In tandem with an idealistic intellectual desire to foster critical thought and transnational exchange, CEU has undertaken a pragmatic mission to train the world’s future leaders—an elite whose prestigious education will carry them into influential positions in government and business, where they will implement open society values directly. In the European Parliament, CEU has been lauded as “a pearl in the crown of post-divided, free and whole Europe.”
In March 2017, when Lex CEU was put into motion, I was a foreigner in Budapest: an international student on a generous EU scholarship, working on a master’s in the gender studies department, a discipline where we find ourselves caught between a fierce critique of western academia and a still fiercer defence of its place here. In this space we think about borders and infrastructures, the free movement of certain bodies and ideas, and the arrest or suppression of others; about abstract ideals and material realities; about the nature of knowledge and of power, and the relation between the two. In a time when academia is increasingly globalized and yet increasingly insular, what is a university for? How is it made, and unmade?
Lex CEU and the border fence sit at the two ends of Orbán’s totalising spectrum of control: repression by legal instruments in the centre, and by naked violence at the peripheries. On the former side, his narrative opposes the globalist western powers seeking to dominate Hungary’s economy and replace its good Christian culture with decadent liberal depravity; on the latter, it attacks the destitute hordes plotting to raid Hungary’s public purse and replace its good Christian culture with unnamed Islamic terrors.
Along with migrants and Jews, Orbán’s targets have included the Roma community, who are subject to frequent violent attacks; homeless people, who can now be prosecuted and have their belongings destroyed for the crime of sleeping on the streets; women and queers who refuse the imperative to “give birth for the country”.
These hostilities are pervasive in the public sphere. Opposition media has been systematically closed down or bought out; hundreds of outlets were recently brought under the control of a single pro-Fidesz foundation. The government is the single biggest client in Hungary’s advertising market, spending tens of millions of euros on propaganda each year.
The myriad enemies of the state are condensed into the image of George Soros, who looms on billboards across the country, laughing down at politicians on puppet strings. For the anti-globalist right, as Daniel Bessner writes, the Budapest-born billionaire has become an all-powerful villain, “a verbal tic, a key that fits every hole.” In Hungary, this line is now official state discourse. In a sustained anti-Semitic propaganda campaign, Soros has been accused of trying to undermine sovereignty, destroy borders, flood the country with refugees, and corrupt its citizens via scholarships and NGOs. The legislative package that makes it illegal to help migrants is titled “Stop Soros”.
Few Hungarians had heard of CEU before 2017; now everyone knows it as the Soros University.
At the entrance to the new, shiny, high-tech building, a quote from the man himself welcomes students: “Thinking can never quite catch up with reality; reality is always richer than our comprehension. Reality has the power to surprise thinking, and thinking has the power to create reality. But we must remember the unintended consequences – the outcome always differs from expectations.” A darkly comic observation: Orbán himself was a recipient of a Soros scholarship to attend Oxford in the 80s, and his official spokesperson is a CEU graduate.
CEU is a small, wealthy, and singular institution. Its 1500 students pursue postgraduate degrees in the humanities and social sciences, taught only in English, with both U.S. and Hungarian accreditation. Its resources and prestige outstrip any other university in Hungary. Like all universities, it’s something of a bubble: Many CEU students find their social circles and support systems exclusively within its walls. It’s both diverse and insular: many countries, many languages, many disciplines in one institution, speaking the lingua franca, all making the same investment in this abstraction called knowledge.
In late 2016, not long after I arrived in Budapest and not long before the attack on CEU began, Ignatieff—a Canadian academic who briefly served as leader of the Liberal Party—opened his term as rector by announcing a seminar series that would “examine the basic assumptions” of the open society project in the face of rising illiberalism. “We’re asking tough questions of ourselves, because that’s what a university has to do—it has to question its basic premises.” A noble enough idea. But the first open society value on the chopping block was not the sanctity of free markets or the onward march of scientific progress, but “open borders,” as if such a question had ever been on the table. “People say open society is a contradiction in terms—how can a society be open? It must have boundaries and frontiers.”
At around this time, a Syrian man named Ahmed H was sentenced to ten years in prison on terrorism charges. At Hungary’s frontier, Ahmed H had carried a megaphone and thrown some stones at the police, and now he is barred from society, open or otherwise.
Within CEU, the gender studies department was a different kind of bubble. Relegated to the old crumbling buildings, attracting side-eye from students of business and policy, we were united in our investments beyond the purely academic. We learned to be critical of dominant structures of knowledge production, and rehearsed an endlessly receding critique of our own position within them. The idealism in which CEU cloaks itself—the premise that the university is about making the world a better place—is regarded with some scepticism; we’ve learned all the ways in which science is structured by class power and colonial violence and capitalist destruction.
Open society values, as Ignatieff has described them—“liberal democratic constitutionalism, Keynesian liberal market economy, a commitment to scientific inquiry and challenging all theories, an understanding that our knowledge is limited, and a liberal order upheld by the United States”—are not ones that many in my discipline would recognise as a guiding political or intellectual paradigm. When the rector’s seminar programme, sold as an exciting critical renewal of those values, featured a parade of all white, mostly male academics, headlined by Mark Lilla on the failures of identity politics, we submitted our predictable criticisms. If CEU’s stated mission is the cultivation of “free minds, free politics, free institutions,” gender studies makes it our business to be a thorn in the side of these value systems. What do we mean by free? What counts as politics? Who is we?
Other disciplines do all of this too, obviously. But gender studies is explicitly founded on a critique of every established norm, up to and including that of its own existence: we have problems with the curriculum and the perspective, with the power relations in the classroom and the power relations that get you into the classroom in the first place, with Eurocentrism and US-centrism and English linguistic hegemony and canonisation and periodisation and the fact that there is too much Foucault on the reading list. All of this self-reflexivity feels like a necessary corrective to academia’s self-assured elitism. But it can also feel insular and impotent, a closed loop of critique that goes nowhere, short-circuiting the possibility of action.
This is what it feels like, anyway, until a government decides to outlaw the discipline altogether. Last October, without consultation or debate, Fidesz removed accreditation and funding from gender studies programmes. The decision, it declared, was based on the discipline’s low employment rates, lack of scientific rigour, and ideological bias. The sincerity of these concerns is demonstrated by the invention of a discipline called “Family Studies” to replace it.
Other than CEU’s privately-funded, U.S.-accredited programme, there was just one other place you could study gender in Hungary, at Eötvös Loránd (ELTE), whose brand-new programme has enrolled no more than a handful of students. Compared to the violence of everything else going on in Hungary, this is theatre. But theatre can shape reality; the symbolic weight of it is felt passionately. A friend tells me she knows people who have deleted their degrees from their CVs. In the Hungarian job market, a blank space is now safer than declaring your allegiances and your accomplishments.
Still, there’s something perversely satisfying about being banned.
A common sense of urgency was kindled when CEU first came under attack in early 2017. All of our conflicting commitments and our uneven investments were put aside to say: I Stand With CEU. In the public memories that are now being built, the institution and its leader are the heroes; Ignatieff is praised for “playing a key role” in the protests and “putting himself on the front lines” in a fight he didn’t sign up for. But that isn’t quite how it happened. Orsolya Lehotai, one of the handful of Hungarian students who organized mass protests against the law, reminds me that the institution, to begin with, wanted nothing to do with them. The management wanted to lie low and let things play out – concerned about optics and strategy, unwilling to throw their weight behind a few student activists shouting into the wind. But Orsolya was already filing for a protest permit, adamant that we had a duty to respond, with or without CEU’s support.
She, too, was nervous that nobody would show up. But suddenly there were ten thousand on the streets of Budapest. The law was passed in parliament anyway.
Days later there were eighty thousand; the crowd was awash in VETO signs, calling on president János Áder to halt the legislation in its tracks. He signed it into law anyway.
There were open letters, and petitions, and appeals to the EU, and a lot of international coverage. The government and its media extensions remained steadfast: all the Soros University had to do, they insisted, was comply with the law.
CEU was always an easy target for suspicion – a tangible symbol of the global elite, of liberal democracy’s uneven benefits and broken promises. Most of us there were foreigners, though around a fifth of CEU’s student body is Hungarian; the few locals I befriended were outsiders in other ways, queers and feminists, hostile towards their country and eager to leave. Within the category of “foreigner” is a subset: we come from the powerful wealthy colonial nations, with English as a first or only language, choosing to come here for reasons both obscure and self-evident, and free to leave whenever we wish. This inequality creates a quiet simmering sense of our presence as proof of everything we are supposedly fighting against—a symptom of global asymmetries and colonial histories, a dimension of unearned freedom that can’t help but generate resentments.
But the university is not only a machine for reproducing privilege. “CEU offered an education for those of us coming from the ‘other’ European countries: non-EU, post-communist, Eastern, Central-Eastern, Southeastern, Balkan,” writes Anita Buhin, “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.” Most of CEU’s students are on scholarships; against the ever-rising fees and vicious competition that restrict access to Europe’s elite universities, CEU provides a certain degree of refuge from the logic of the global market. Its faculty, too, has provided employment and funding for genuinely radical and transformative thinkers. The things that happen inside CEU’s walls have both exceeded and contested the liberal aspirations on which it was founded.
In a recent piece on the “criminalization of knowledge”, Judith Butler asks us to consider “the relationship between academic freedom and the idea of the university as a sanctuary.” The university is not only understood as a pulpit for spreading enlightenment and opening societies; academic freedom is also the freedom to retreat from the everyday urgency of the world, to create gated communities of knowledge and meaning. Sanctuary: the university as secular church; the university as a safe space. “Sanctuary is a vanishing ideal within the new security state,” writes Butler, and “one worth reanimating not only for scholars at risk but also for the undocumented and those who engage in political dissent–in other words, for all those who have reason to fear the state by virtue of their precarious position.”
If CEU is a bubble, it has also been a sanctuary: for Roma and refugee students who are systematically excluded from the national community; for queers and feminists and socialists who have few other spaces for developing and connecting their ideas; for students and scholars in flight from their own authoritarian governments. Fidesz has made CEU synonymous with this collection of outsiders: state media broadcasts, surveying a crowd of students, linger pointedly on brown faces and haircuts of ambiguous gender. Last August the Stop Soros laws resulted in a suspension of the university’s refugee access programme, though it has since been quietly reinstated.
In public, Ignatieff continues to insist on his institution’s disinterested neutrality, and has cited the university’s prestige in fields like political science while studiously avoiding anything that might resemble actual politics: “We’re not a hotbed of anti-Orbán agitation… if they would leave us alone, we’ll leave them alone.” As it became evident that Orbán would not be leaving anyone alone, this cautious position evolved somewhat. In a recent profile, Ignatieff described his slow-dawning realisation that sometimes combat is necessary and “you have to draw a line,” but remained indignant at the idea that CEU might take a stand on anything other than its own right to exist: “The university would not have the reputation it has if it was simply some kind of opposition NGO fronting as a university.”
But what exactly is it we’re defending, if CEU cannot be oppositional? What does it mean to distance ourselves from “opposition NGOs” when those, too, are being criminalized, shut down and driven from the country? What is the value of a “free and independent institution” that promises to leave the state alone?
Most of us have left Budapest now. Some went back to their own Orbáns, to Erdoğan and Duterte and Bolsonaro and Trump: the same shit everywhere, and CEU one of the few places where, at certain moments, some sort of interconnected understanding could flourish, however fleetingly. Others, like me, went back to the hallowed halls of western Europe, to talk about power in the safe confines of the seats of power.
In a lecture about universities and democracy delivered at CEU in September 2017, Jana Bacevic argued that “we need to ask not what universities (ideally) aim to achieve, but rather, what is it that universities do, what they can do, but also, importantly, what can be done with them.” There are things that can be done, too, with a university’s absence. If CEU refused to assume the role of an opposition, an opposition nonetheless has been building through and around it.
When Ignatieff, in late October, gave the government an ultimatum—sign an agreement recognising CEU’s legality by December 1st, or we leave—a fresh collection of students gathered. One of the organizers, Max de Blank, told me that it started with around 40 of them. Their first strategy, appealing to Orbán’s more moderate allies in the European People’s Party to draw a “red line” at CEU’s expulsion, proved fruitless. Around the same time, in response to the gender studies ban, staff and students at ELTE organised an “information strike,” replacing regular classes with sessions on gender and academic freedom. For Max and other CEU protestors, the moment crystallized the fact that their university was not the only thing at stake; they began building connections, and the next big protest experimented with a shift in emphasis—no longer for one university’s fate, but for academic freedom in Hungary, against the privatizations and defundings and acts of censorship that have been quietly dismantling higher education since long before Lex CEU.
In the runup to the December deadline, tents were erected outside the parliament, and a week-long Szabad Egyetem—a Free University—became a hub of lectures and discussions and coalition-building, with an explicit aim to create the beginnings of something bigger. Still, it has remained a challenge for the movement to keep its focus from collapsing back into CEU. Ignatieff visited the Szabad Egyetem, but only after some contention among the organisers about what his presence there would mean. Max says that the institution’s support has sometimes felt like an attempt to appropriate the movement, to tame it into a single-issue story synonymous with CEU’s fight to stay.
On December 1st, with no response from the government, the protestors held a funeral for academic freedom, complete with coffin and headstone and soil. But the Central European University has access to the kind of mobility most human bodies can only dream of. Its wealth and prestige will always ensure its welcome somewhere. While the university’s departure is another step in the burial of freedom in Hungary, and one that will have consequences for many people’s lives, it is not the most significant one. Orbán already has near-complete control of the media; now he is rewriting the constitution and eroding the independence of the judiciary with the creation of a parallel government-controlled court system.
Nora Eörsi, who has been working with other Hungarian students to build the beginnings of a new movement since the strike at ELTE, told me that the Szabad Egyetem galvanised them; there is a renewed sense of motivation to build not just a protest for academic freedom, but a capacity to respond to every new injury Orbán visits on the country. They have already made successful connections with trade unions to fight the latest attacks on workers’ rights: The week before Christmas saw mass protests against a new law that would force workers to accept 400 hours of yearly overtime that erupted into days of anti-Fidesz action across the country.
This rare moment of unified resistance brought state violence, normally kept out of sight on the nation’s periphery, into the spotlight. When state media refused to cover the protests, opposition MPs entered the broadcasters’ headquarters to demand airtime, and were removed from the building by force. Now there is talk of a national strike. In ridding himself of an inconvenient university, Orbán may have sparked the beginnings of a far greater threat to his authoritarian ambitions.