Following its hosting of a delegation of administrators and students from Central European University (CEU), Human Rights First urged the Trump Administration and Congress to protect academic freedom and oppose the government of Hungary’s attempt to shutter the university.
“The Hungarian government’s attempt to close Central European University is nothing short of a direct attack on an American institution and the very concept of academic freedom,” said Rob Berschinski, Human Rights First’s Senior Vice President for Policy. “Not content with eliminating many of Hungary’s democratic norms and safeguards, curbing its independent media, threatening its civic organizations, and cozying up to Russia, Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban has elected to assault an apolitical, world-class center of higher education for political gain. It’s inexplicable.”
The call follows yesterday’s statement by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announcing his readiness to enter into discussions with the Hungarian government to maintain New York’s relationship with Hungary in a manner that enables CEU to continue to operate in Budapest—a path toward resolution supported by the United States Government and CEU. The university is a graduate institution in Budapest dually accredited in the state of New York and Hungary.
CEU was endowed by Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros in 1991, as Hungary emerged from communist rule, and is considered one of the one hundred best universities in the world, and among the most prestigious universities in central Europe. CEU is home to over 1,500 students from 116 countries.
On April 4, 2017, with no consultation and only a week’s notice, the Hungarian parliament passed amendments to Hungary’s higher education law that would have the effect, if implemented, of forcing CEU out of the country. The legislation sets new, onerous, and legally unnecessary requirements on universities registered in foreign countries, several of which apply only to CEU. These include a requirement to establish a national-level agreement on the university between the United States and Hungary, and the need for the university to operate a campus in the United States in addition to its existing campus in Budapest. If these conditions are not met, CEU may lose its operating license as early as October 2017. The university has stated that it may need to make a decision on closure or relocation as early as June.
Since the legislation assailing CEU was introduced, the university has received an outpouring of support from Hungarian citizens, academics, government officials, and human rights activists around the world. Tens of thousands of Hungarians of all ages and political affiliations have repeatedly taken to Budapest’s streets to protest their government’s assault on a center of learning. Twenty-seven Nobel laureates, the International Association of Universities, and the presidents of Yale, Harvard, Princeton, New York University, Duke, and Oxford, as well as thousands of scholars and researchers, have called for CEU to be allowed to remain in Hungary.
On May 23, the U.S. Department of State urged the Hungarian government to suspend its attack on CEU, noting that the recent amendments place “discriminatory, onerous requirements on U.S.-accredited institutions in Hungary and threaten academic freedom and independence.” The State Department further made clear that it would not negotiate with the Hungarian government over CEU.
Republican and Democratic members of the U.S. Congress in both the House and Senate have called on the Hungarian government to cease its attack on CEU and academic freedom, noting that compromising the university’s operations would negatively impact bilateral relations with the United States.
The European Commission initiated infringement proceedings against the Hungarian government regarding CEU in late April, and on May 17 the European Parliament passed a resolution explicitly calling on Hungary to repeal the recent amendments.
From May 22-24, Human Rights First sponsored two of the university’s graduate students and its pro-rector for social sciences and humanities in Washington, D.C., where they held meetings with senior level officials in the U.S. government and members of the House and Senate. The delegation also spoke publicly at an event on academic freedom co-hosted by George Washington University.
“This legislation works to no one’s benefit,” said Berschinski. “If enacted, it will deprive thousands of Hungarian, American, and international students of a top-flight education, and deprive the Hungarian economy of a major tax center and other sources of revenue. It would be seen as a direct attack—by a NATO ally, no less—on an American institution and universal values. Moreover, the issue goes well beyond Hungary. The United States maintains roughly 30 American universities in foreign countries around the world. If successful, Orban’s gambit could serve as a model for other repressive governments.”
To learn more about how the United States can counter Hungary’s erosion of democratic institutions and its attacks on civil society, read Human Rights First’s new fact sheet, Hungary: Eroding Democratic Institutions, Closing Space for Civil Society. Human Rights First’s recent report on the Government of Hungary’s attack on civil society and overtures to Russia can be found here.
“The State Department and members of Congress from both parties have made their positions clear, but thus far the Orban-led government has chosen not to engage with the key actors: CEU and the state of New York,” added Berschinski. “Time is running out. The Trump Administration and Congress need to signal clearly to Prime Minister Orban that an attack on an American institution will not be taken lightly, and that he should work with the university and New York to resolve this issue in a way that permits CEU’s continued operation in Budapest.”
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