Defending a CEU that matters

Intellectual freedom and the belief that what we are doing is righteous is a powerful combination. This is the power that the current Hungarian government wants to dismantle and eliminate.

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Facebook is a place of remembrance. On Monday March 27th, a faculty uploaded photos from the period when Central European University’s campus was situated on the Buda side (1992-1995). Comments and anecdotes followed about CEU’s foundational period. Comments and shared stories about how CEU’s library started with only 150 copied and bound titles, which has now grown since into the largest English language library in Continental Europe today, were liked by many.

A story was posted about how the founding professor of Legal Studies actually fell into the room when he was introducing himself for the first time because the doorsteps were so uneven; or how the professor of Medieval Studies, a late 68ish leftist intellectual, nearly prompted police action when inspecting the venue because security guards thought he was homeless.

There are several common points about CEU in the stories of this digital autobiographical thread on Facebook that I enjoyed reading, especially as a faculty member that has worked there from September 1991.

The first is the painful lack of visual documentation of those times. Nowadays one records every moment of their life, but events that happened 20 years ago fell into visual oblivion because we were too busy to chronicle them while we were making history.

The second is the personal feeling of belonging to an important and meaningful intellectual and moral project. When CEU was founded in 1991 the founding fathers no longer with us – Peter Hanak, Vaclav Havel, Gyorgy Litvan, Miklos Vasarhelyi, Bronislaw Geremek and Ralph Dahrendorf, to name a few – had a vision of reconnecting the intellectual ties of Central Europe that were cut under Communism.

So, 1991 served as a new intellectual beginning. One morning I was lecturing a class of Serb, Croat, Hungarian, American, Polish, and Czech students about war and women when the Serbian troops began shelling Dubrovnik. A Croatian student came into lecture late with a printed piece of paper and passed it to her neighbor. The paper went around until it reached the Serbian student, who burst into tears after looking at the picture. Following this, I had the privilege of conducting one of the most remarkable class discussions I ever had. This type of discussion could have only happened at CEU. Those who participated will never forget that difficult and meaningful interaction – and this was the founders’ dream – to create an open space for exploratory conversation. This freedom experienced was easily detectable in the numerous nostalgic CEU-related Facebook posts.

Two days after this reminiscent Facebook feed about CEU began, the rector called a town hall meeting in the new campus building in downtown Pest. The 800-seat auditorium was packed with students, staff and faculty. In the past two months there have been numerous attacks against CEU in the Hungarian press – mostly against the founder, George Soros.

One of the faculty said that for the past 30 years that Soros had been supporting important initiatives around the globe, there had not been a month that had gone by when he was not a persona non grata in at least three countries simultaneously. But the attack that started on March 28th this year is fundamentally different.

The Hungarian Government tabled a law at 6pm that day that was tailored to make CEU inoperable in Hungary. According to this proposal, the classes taught, as well as the hiring and recruitment at foreign universities in Hungary would now be based on intergovernmental criteria and would require the Hungarian government’s approval.

All foreign universities would now be required to have programs in their countries of origin, and only those universities in the European Economic Community would be granted the special degree of cooperation with Hungarian universities. According to the proposed legislation no two universities in Hungary would be allowed to have the same name, and CEU has an English language entity registered in New York and a Hungarian one in Budapest, but CEU lacks a home campus in the US. Furthermore, citizens from outside the EU currently employed at higher education institutions in Hungary would now be required to obtain a working permit.

All these proposals are about hierarchical control, and CEU was founded to fight against those values that underpin this law. If this law is implemented, the painful yet memorable discussions, like the one my class had after the shelling of Dubrovnik would no longer happen.

Intellectual freedom and the belief that what we are doing is righteous is a powerful combination. This is the power that the current Hungarian government wants to dismantle and eliminate. However, I trust that the students from that class, along with the other 14,000 CEU alumni will defend the rights of this new generation to learn from the past and from each other.

Andrea Pető

Andrea Pető

is a Professor at the Department of Gender Studies at Central European University and Doctor of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. She serves on the board of several journals in the field of women's history (Gender and History, Clio) and Contemporary European History. President of the gender and women’s history section of the Hungarian Historical Association and the Feminist Section of the Hungarian Sociological Association. She was awarded by President of the Hungarian Republic with the Officer’s Cross Order of Merit of The Republic of Hungary in 2005 and Bolyai Prize by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in 2006.