Each year, usually in October, the staff of the Central European University Press meet with its advisory board, of which I’m a member, in an elegant circular room just off the rector’s office at the university’s headquarters in Budapest.
The press is small, staffed by a young Hungarian team. Most of the titles that they publish sell in the hundreds or low thousands of copies, like many academic publishers’ lists. The meeting is orderly, respectful. It is a far from radical or revolutionary endeavor.
Yet this modest press and the university that houses it are under direct attack by Hungary’s right-wing prime minister, Viktor Orban, whose government has added an amendment to anti-immigration legislation that would regulate the movement of international staff and students for unspecified “national security reasons.”
The Central European University (CEU) operates in the English language; its 1,440 students come from 108 nations; more than half the faculty and the large majority of the administrative staff are Hungarian; and the rector is the distinguished intellectual and former Liberal Party politician Michael Ignatieff, who is Canadian and married to a Hungarian. The effect of the proposed law would be to “make it impossible for the university to continue its operations,” according to the CEU.
But the real reason that the CEU has been targeted is the identity of its founder — the financier and Open Society Foundations activist George Soros. The billionaire philanthropist funded the creation of the university in 1991. Since then, it has become one of the highest-ranked in Central Europe. But the university’s pedigree is not, apparently, enough to save it from association with the era after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the former Soviet Union.
Even though Orban personally benefited from a scholarship from Soros to study at Oxford University, he leads a fiercely nationalistic government. The CEU has become a soft, handy political target. Soros, a liberal internationalist, is the antithesis of Vladimir Putin, a nationalist authoritarian who happens to be Orban’s political role model.
And that’s why the CEU matters. It is not a relatively small institution caught up in a local political spat; it is part of the larger test of Western liberal values. It is also a university, committed to learning, to actual facts, to rigorous scientific method, and to a wide and diverse student body. Its press is not a rival to the Oxford University Press or Harvard’s, but it publishes with integrity and supports scholarly expertise. Yet it is under existential threat.
Viktor Orban has spoken of his determination to pursue an “illiberal democracy” in Hungary, modeled on the Russian example. Clearly, it starts with the shuttering of free speech and inquiry. One of the special focuses of the CEU Press is Cold War studies. The lessons of that period are suddenly very necessary.
Europeans, who know how to defend their rights, need their government to fight for the CEU’s right to speak, publish, and exist in an environment free from political harassment or legal peril.