The Atlantic

Viktor Orbán’s War on Intellect

As the Hungarian prime minister systematically undermined his own country’s education system, one institution stood defiant: a university in the heart of Budapest, founded by George Soros.
Source: Illustration by Paul Spella; Dean Mouhtaropoulos / Getty; Jorge Silva; Bernadett Szabo / Reuters; Shutterstock

On a relentlessly gray Budapest morning, Michael Ignatieff took me to the rooftop of Central European University’s main building. The newly erected edifice is all glass, sharp angles, exposed steel, and polished wood. Its roof had been landscaped with billowing grasses and fitted with iron benches, as if a section of New York City’s High Line had been transported to Hungary. “This is probably my favorite place on the campus,” Ignatieff told me. He wore a newsboy cap in the winter chill; his reading glasses, which he’d absentmindedly neglected to remove, were wedged on the very end of his nose. The broad Danube and the architectural remnants of the city’s imperial past were splayed out in front of us.

Ignatieff, an intellectual who made an unsuccessful bid to become prime minister of Canada, has spent much of his career studying the fragility of human rights and the irresistible impulse toward nationalism. When he became CEU’s rector in 2016, however, he didn’t believe the job would catapult him to the front lines of the fight for liberalism. He imagined it would be more like a pleasant homecoming. Hungary is the native land of his wife, Zsuzsanna; he had come to know the place intimately on regular visits to her family. “I’m of a certain age,” he said. “I thought, That’s a nice way to top it off.”

He pointed to nearby government buildings. In one of them, the authoritarian government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán had, less than a year after Ignatieff’s arrival, devised a plan to evict CEU from Hungary. The university is widely considered the country’s most prestigious graduate school—it’s been a training ground for presidents, diplomats, and even members of Orbán’s own inner circle. But that inner circle had turned against the institution that had nurtured it and now sought to chase the school from the country’s borders. As Ignatieff explained this to me, he shook his head. “This was not supposed to happen here,” he said.

[Read: A 2014 interview with CEU’s president about international education]

Hungary once had some of the best universities in postcommunist Europe. But Orbán’s government has systematically crushed them. His functionaries have descended on public universities, controlling them tightly. Research funding, once determined by an independent body of academics, is now primarily dispensed by an Orbán loyalist. When I arrived in Budapest, a pro-government website had just called on students to submit the names of professors who espoused “unasked-for left-wing political opinions.” A regime-friendly weekly published an “enemies list” that included the names of dozens of academics, “mercenaries” purportedly working on behalf of a foreign cabal.

Like Pol Pot or Josef Stalin, Orbán dreams of liquidating the intelligentsia, draining the public of education, and molding a more pliant nation. But he is a state-of-the-art autocrat; he understands that he need not resort to the truncheon or the midnight knock at the door. His assault on civil society arrives in the guise of legalisms subverting the institutions that might challenge his authority.

CEU is a private university, accredited in both the United States and Hungary, and for that reason it has posed a particular challenge to the regime. The school was founded by the Budapest-born financier George Soros, whom Orbán has vilified as a nefarious interloper in Hungary’s affairs. Soros had conceived the school during the dying days of communism to train a generation of technocrats who would write new constitutions, privatize state enterprises, and lead the post-Soviet world into a cosmopolitan future. The university, he declared, would “become a prototype of an open society.”

But open society is exactly what Orbán hopes to roll back; is the euphemism he uses to describe the state he is building. The prime minister and his allies did their best to make life unpleasant for CEU. Then, in April 2017, Parliament passed a law setting conditions that threatened to render CEU’s continued presence in the country illegal.

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