The World

University in Exile

The George Soros–founded Central European University was just finding its footing after being forced to leave Hungary. Then the pandemic hit.

Front of modernist buillding with "CEU" logo.
The CEU’s old building in Budapest, photographed in 2018. Bernadett Szabo/Reuters

This article was originally published by the Institute of Current World Affairs in D.C.

VIENNA—On a recent Tuesday afternoon, students pored over laptops in the library, chatted in the hallways, and congregated after class in small groups outside a sleek, newly renovated former bank in Vienna’s southern Favoriten district. It was the second day of classes at Central European University’s new home.

Yet despite the typical collegial atmosphere, signs of change were difficult to ignore. The entrance was plastered with current safety procedures, noting a requirement to wear masks and keep distance from others. A hand sanitizer station complemented newly unveiled temperature-taking machines. Inside classrooms, fewer students than usual occupied spaced-out desks, listening to professors and far-flung classmates joining via Zoom.

Crisis and adaptability are nothing new for CEU, founded in Budapest in 1991 by the Hungarian American philanthropist George Soros. After becoming one of the Hungarian capital’s important institutions, it was effectively forced out in 2017 amid authoritarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s anti-Semitic political vendetta against Soros. CEU opened its new Vienna campus in 2019, and while students and professors split time between both cities last year, nearly all its academic programs will now be taught here.

But the already difficult and costly move has been complicated by the coronavirus pandemic, which has shut borders—including the one between Austria and Hungary—and posed significant challenges for universities worldwide. Even though CEU scored a major symbolic victory on Tuesday, when the European Court of Justice ruled against the law that drove it from Budapest, the current situation is all the more painful for a university founded with the mission of promoting open societies, and which prides itself on bringing together students and faculty from around the globe. The new class comprises 700 students from 90 different countries, but many are struggling to make it to Vienna under current travel restrictions.

That’s surely a welcome development for Orbán and other right-wing politicians across Europe, who earlier this year saw their dreams of closed borders and renewed emphasis on national interests realized practically overnight. They have used the pandemic to amass more power and target political enemies. Now, the crisis has provided nearly as big a challenge to the university’s core mission as Orbán’s efforts to demonize it. “It’s just a very unique situation,” Michael Ignatieff, CEU’s president and rector, told me by phone.

The opening of classes in Vienna late last month is the culmination of years of uncertainty and legal battles launched by Orbán’s government. In the decade since he took office, he’s strived to centralize control of nearly all aspects of life in Hungary: From sabotaging independent media to targeting nongovernmental organizations and demonizing migrants, he has reshaped the country into what he refers to as an “illiberal democracy.”

As one of the world’s most prominent pro-democracy philanthropists, Soros was a perfect target—and so was CEU, which he founded to provide high-quality international education to students in ex-communist Europe. Going after the institution allowed Orbán to extend his fight against Soros, since CEU received the vast majority of Hungary’s allotted European Union funding for higher education.

At issue was the university’s accreditation in the United States, since its degrees are recognized both there and in Hungary. In 2018, Hungarian lawmakers approved legislation requiring schools with foreign accreditation to have physical campuses in those countries, as well as a signed agreement between the Hungarian government and that of the accrediting country. CEU, which is registered in the state of New York, opened a small satellite campus at Bard College. Working with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, university officials raced to draw up the necessary agreements with the Hungarian government.

But officials rejected CEU’s effort. The university announced its move to Vienna in late 2018, and while it maintains a presence in Budapest—with several research institutes still based there—all but a few taught degree programs are now in Vienna.

The legal onslaught was characteristic of Orbán’s approach to governing, says Renáta Uitz, a professor of law at CEU. He seeks out legal gray areas to force opponents to jump through daunting administrative hoops, theoretically in the name of transparency, fairness, or other ambiguous values. In CEU’s case, Orbán ostensibly wanted to level the playing field for universities’ accreditation and prevent fraud—both reasonable goals, had they been applied to more than just one university. “What you actually see as the modus operandi of the regime is using smartly engineered legal rules to get to where they wish,” Uitz told me.

Although the battle has effectively ended, Orbán has continued his assault on academic freedom and independent research. In 2018, for instance, he banned gender studies programs at universities. Last year, his government sparked renewed protests when it placed the Hungarian Academy of Sciences under its control—a move members said would jeopardize their ability to conduct independent research. And just this summer, Orbán proposed changes at the University of Theater and Film Arts in Budapest, announcing the state university’s ownership would be transferred to a private foundation in addition to appointing a new board of trustees. Nearly 100 students protested by barricading themselves in a campus building.

References to those political developments and the pandemic were a frequent theme throughout CEU’s virtual opening ceremony a few days before classes began. “The values we believe in here are being challenged as never before,” Ignatieff told students in his address, during which he also called for “digital togetherness.”

As elsewhere around the world, social distancing makes building an academic community while keeping students safe a unique challenge. It’s even more difficult when those students hail from as far away as Africa and South Asia. Traditional social events that would bring new students together—especially important for CEU’s new undergraduate program—are impossible under the current restrictions. COVID-19 cases are on the rise in Vienna, deemed a “risk area” by Germany and other nearby countries.

Chatting outside after class, Max and Joshua, two students in the comparative constitutional law program from Germany and the United Kingdom, respectively, told me they were happy to be able to study on campus, but said the dynamics of the famously international university just aren’t the same when more than half their class is joining via Zoom. “It’ll be interesting how many people come in the next weeks and months,” Max said, adding that he’s “super impressed” with the university’s handling of the situation.

It’s unclear how CEU’s change of location will affect its identity and the experience it offers students. Some worry that moving from Budapest to Vienna, a more expensive city, could deter some from enrolling, or make life harder once they’re here. Ignatieff, for his part, said Vienna is a natural new home: A meeting point between the German-speaking world and Central and Eastern Europe, its diversity and range of international organizations will enrich the opportunities available to CEU students. “We do not see ourselves as a refugee university or a university in exile—we see it as a new beginning,” he told me. “I don’t think we will lose our Central European identity—I think it will be reinforced and strengthened in Vienna.”

The start of classes in Vienna came with a welcome development: The European Court of Justice ruled Tuesday that Lex CEU, the law that ultimately forced the university’s move to Vienna, violates European Union law. The ruling brings “a tremendous sense of vindication” for the institution, Ignatieff told reporters Tuesday afternoon, adding it could mean CEU will be able to return some of its U.S.-accredited programs to Budapest in the future. Still, the favorable ruling came far too late to change CEU’s current situation: The university has already signed a contract with the city of Vienna to develop a permanent campus at a former hospital complex, slated for launch in 2025. CEU “considers Vienna our permanent home, Ignatieff said. “The judgment’s not going to change that.”

As for the university’s long-term future, and that of academic freedom in Budapest, observers like Janós Kertész, a CEU professor of network science who moved to Vienna this summer with his wife, expressed a simple sentiment: No government lasts forever. “The question is always: ‘How long?’ ”

Editor’s note: This story was adapted from a longer ICWA dispatch.