I spoke on Thursday afternoon with CEU’s rector, Michael Ignatieff. Ignatieff, who has taught at Harvard and Oxford, led the Liberal Party of Canada from 2008 to 2011. He is married to a Hungarian and knew the country well before returning to academic life at CEU in 2016. I reached him during a short visit to Washington.
I began by asking him about the protests in Budapest against the Orban government’s actions. “This is a society with an acute sense of what it’s like to have freedom and to lose it. Both local tyrants and foreign despots judged wrong when they underestimated the righteous anger of the people in this region. There were 10,000 people outside our front door protesting; civil society is not dead in Hungary.”
I asked him about the sources of Orban’s antipathy to the university. “He wants to shut down a free institution. One of his lines is that we’re unfair competition with local schools. That won’t wash. We are embedded in this society, we share resources with other Hungarian universities. He keeps calling us the Soros University. I don’t answer to George Soros. I answer to a board of trustees made up of a number of distinguished people, including the former governor of New York, George Pataki. Those are the people who hired me, those are the people to whom I answer. I’m not in politics in Hungary. I have no challenge to offer to Mr Orban’s rule. I have one objective: leave us alone; we’ll leave you alone.”
He was in Washington, he explained, to seek support from the U.S. government. “We wanted to be sure that the U.S. State Department’s immediate, courageous, outstanding support for CEU spoke for the whole administration. Viktor Orban has made clear his contempt for statements from the State department alone. We wanted to make clear that the Trump administration—to the degree it has a view—is speaking through the State Department. We got unequivocal support [from Fiona Hill’s team at the National Security Council]. I went up on the Hill and spoke to Republican senators and staff. There is a tiny ledge of commonality between Republicans and Democrats, and academic freedom is one issue that unites them both.”
Ignatieff explained that there exist some 30 other U.S. degree-granting institutions that have their physical presence entirely outside the United States: the American University in Beirut being perhaps the most famous. Another 100 U.S. universities have premises both inside and outside the United States. “If Orban succeeds, a lot of other American institutions around the world can be taken hostage by some local despot.” He added a little later: “I do fear that if Orban takes us down, it will be a darker, grimmer, more repressive period for those institutions that remain.”
Could he see any hopeful signs? An appeal had been initiated to Hungary’s constitutional court, but of course that process had long ago been utterly politicized. However, “the United States has been much tougher on this issue than the prime minister gambled. Even at this late date, it’s not inconceivable he might cut a deal. The problem is that the rhetoric has been so harsh—he’d have to make some concessions that at the moment are difficult for him to make. We’re hopeful that a quiet word from the Trump administration, from his allies in Bavaria and the European political scene, will make Orban understand that this is not in his interest.”