Soros-Founded Graduate School In Hungary Threatened With Closure
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
In Budapest, a university founded by the liberal Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros is in danger of being shut down. It's called the Central European University. It's a high-ranking American school for graduate students. Hungary's prime minister, Viktor Orban, is supporting a proposed law that would require all non-European Union universities operating in Hungary to have a campus in their native country.
The Central European University does not currently have a campus in the U.S. University president and director Michael Ignatieff says the law is a targeted attack against his school. When I spoke with him earlier, I asked him about what's unique about the Central European University.
MICHAEL IGNATIEFF: Well, it's unique because it's an American institution and a Hungarian institution. We offer degrees that are accredited in the United States - master's and Ph.D.s. We've been around for 25 years. And when this thing happened, we discovered, actually, how unique we were. We had an explosion of support around the world saying this was an attack on academic freedom that all institutions need, particularly - let me add - Hungarian ones.
SIEGEL: Do you think this is all about the fact that the university has been a place where voices of dissent - Hungarian voices - have been welcomed and amplified?
IGNATIEFF: Well, some people see it as an attack on a liberal institution, but I keep seeing it as just an attack on a free institution. I'm the president of the university, and like most university presidents, I don't know how people vote. Some people vote for the government. Some people oppose the government. But basically we do all those kind of things that universities do, like medieval history and, you know, cognitive science. We're an actual university. We're not a hotbed of anti-Orban agitation. We never will be because I think that would compromise what a university's for. We're actually a serious graduate institution, and if they would leave us alone, we'll leave them alone.
SIEGEL: If, in fact, the law that they're talking about is enacted, first, would the Central European University have any way of opening up something in New York City that would qualify as an American campus and therefore qualify under the law?
IGNATIEFF: Well, we are accredited by the state of New York. We would be willing to operate campuses in lots of places, but we're not going to be told where to operate campuses by a government. You look - the legislation they propose is going to pass tomorrow, as it happens. And we're going to keep fighting because we don't see why a free institution can't survive in Hungary. It's been here for 25 years, and we want to continue.
SIEGEL: George Soros has famously underwritten any number of programs to try to support and maintain democratic institutions in what was formerly Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe or formerly the Soviet Union. Is there a hint here that the counter-Soros movement and the counter-democratic movement, frankly, is now ascendant in some parts of Eastern and Central Europe?
IGNATIEFF: I think there's no question there's counter movement. You see it anywhere you look - Montenegro, Macedonia. How about Turkey? How about Russia? For us, though, the issue isn't actually Mr. Soros, much as I admire him. I'm accountable to trustees. I'm accountable to the senate of the university. My job is to defend the academic freedom of this institution.
SIEGEL: I remember back in the days when the Cold War was still being fought. A group of Czech dissidents could hold an informal seminar on the meaning of meaning, and the secret police would rush in and arrest people for discussing it. Just to give us some sense of proportion here, you're not facing that sort of thing in Hungary, are you? I mean, are you finding academics being menaced for engaging in research or discussion?
IGNATIEFF: No. This is not the '70s and '80s where you could go to jail. Hungary is not a secret police society. I mean, they probably listen in to people's phone calls, but, hell, there are a lot of places where that's going on. We had a wonderful demonstration last night in Budapest where there were - 10,000 people flowed past our university. We had nothing to do with the origin of - with the demonstration, by the way, but...
SIEGEL: And they're not frightened out of doing that - those people.
IGNATIEFF: But they're not frightened. They're not intimidated. And I think that's important. Let's keep proportion here. We have our differences with this regime. We are implacably opposed to what they're doing, but this is not a police state.
SIEGEL: That's Michael Ignatieff, president and director of the Central European University in Budapest. And we should say that NPR receives funding from the George Soros Open Society Foundations.
(SOUNDBITE OF HIDDEN ORCHESTRA SONG, "SPOKEN"
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.