After the fall of the Berlin Wall, a young investor of Hungarian descent named George Soros decided to help found a new university in Budapest that would be known as the Central European University (CEU). It would have a clear vision and well-stated goals: the former states of the USSR needed a cadre of young people educated to the highest academic standards who could think critically to provide much-needed leadership as their countries underwent fundamental transformations. Karl Popper’s open society would become a reality, with higher education playing a necessary and pivotal role in emerging democracies. Today, nearly 30 years later, universities continue to play this important role, and none more so than the CEU.
Make no mistake: even though the CEU has focussed primarily on higher education in the social sciences and humanities, this institution has enjoyed enviable success in every respect. It has graduated several thousand students hailing from dozens of countries, particularly from the former Soviet Union and the third world. As a university driven by academic freedom, the CEU has had a profound impact, especially in former Soviet bloc countries. The research conducted by its local and international faculty members is lauded across Europe and around the world. In short, the CEU is a jewel of a university that has fully achieved its goals while meeting the highest standards, without any funding from the Hungarian government. Moreover, its presence has completely transformed the Pest neighbourhood on the banks of the Danube.
But this very success is undoubtedly what troubles Hungary’s current leadership, which has recently done everything in its power to evict the CEU from its territory. With regret, the CEU has decided to leave Hungary. Although demonized and denounced by insular forces, this university community continues to defy authority through its pursuit of open-mindedness and academic freedom. At issue is the Hungarian government’s obstinate attitude towards the CEU and its founder, George Soros, an obstinacy that perversely testifies to this university’s success in distinguishing itself and in remaining true to its calling.
As vectors of change and critical thinking, institutions of higher learning not only educate tomorrow’s leaders, but also, through their research, push the boundaries of knowledge and foster the evolution of social mores. Their contributions in this regard are priceless: their ability to hone critical thinking skills, to question what is, what can be, and what must be, is central to their mission. The repeated attacks by the Hungarian government against the CEU are attacks against academic freedom around the world, and as such, they are attacks against the very foundations of our democracies.
Universities have a very real and urgent duty to stand in solidarity with the CEU, safeguard its academic freedom, and defend its very existence. We must also raise concerns about the fate of other Hungarian universities, which also deserve our full support. This questioning of the fundamental mission of universities threatens the very foundations of democracy and freedom. The fate that Hungarian authorities have in store for the CEU, coupled with the relative silence of European authorities, is very troubling.
President and Vice-Chancellor