Hungarian Legislation May Force Soros University to Close

New legislation put forward by the Hungarian government would force a university founded by Hungarian-American financier and philanthropist George Soros to close its doors, the New York Times reports.

Opened in 1991 in Soros's native Budapest, Central European University is known as a center for research in the social sciences, with programs led by internationally prominent educators. The legislation proposes to amend Hungary's higher education law to require that the university, a joint U.S.-Hungarian entity, operate a campus in the United States, which it currently does not do and, according to CEU president and rector Michael Ignatieff, would be financially prohibitive. Existing legislation allows for university programs and degrees from OECD countries to function through joint Hungarian entities. The proposed amendment also would remove visa waivers for academic staff, creating additional barriers to hiring and recruitment. The university enrolls nearly eighteen hundred students from more than a hundred countries and employs three hundred and seventy faculty members.

The legislation is seen as the latest development in a sustained crackdown on free expression and liberal values by the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, a vocal supporter of President Donald J. Trump and critic of Soros. In March, Orbán's governing Fidesz party proposed legislation that would require "agent organizations" seeking to influence Hungarian politics to reveal all sources of foreign funding — a move widely viewed as targeting groups backed by Soros's Open Society Foundations.

After calling on the government "to enter into negotiations with us to find a satisfactory way forward that allows CEU to continue in Budapest and to maintain the academic freedoms essential to its operation," Ignatieff and CEU officials met with the minister of state for education, László Palkovics. In a statement released after the meeting, Ignatieff, a human rights scholar and a former leader of Canada's Liberal Party, said CEU was "willing to remain in dialogue with the government but cannot accept the tabled legislation as a basis for discussion."

"We view it as discriminatory and we view it as a piece of political vandalism," Ignatieff told the Times. "We feel that this isn't just about us; this is about Hungarian academic freedom in general."

Palkovics claimed otherwise. "This is not a move against any university of any foreign country but a clarification of the law," he told the Times. "Just because a university is affiliated with Mr. Soros, that doesn't mean that Hungarian law does not equally apply to it."

While a series of letters to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson from Republicans in Congress have denounced Soros-backed civil society organizations, saying, for example, that the U.S. Agency for International Development had helped such groups "push a progressive agenda and invigorate the political left" in Macedonia, the U.S. embassy in Budapest expressed concern over the latest legislation. "The United States views with great concern the legislative amendments proposed by the Hungarian government yesterday, which would seriously challenge the functioning of the Central European University in Budapest," it said in a statement.

"If the government of Hungary was gambling that the Trump administration would say nothing about a flagrant discriminatory attack on an American institution, they judged wrong," said Ignatieff. "In an era of post-truth politics, institutions that devote themselves to telling people that there is such a thing as knowledge, and it's the only reliable basis upon which to make public choice, that's pretty important."

Palko Karasz. "Hungary Plan That Could Shutter Soros's University Is Called 'Political Vandalism'." New York Times 03/29/2017. "CEU Responds to Proposed Amendments in Hungarian Higher Education Law." Central European University Press Release 03/28/2017.