Western joins international support of Central European University

Western has joined a growing chorus of voices speaking out in support of Central European University (CEU), an American institution operating in Budapest, Hungary, currently under threat by a Hungarian law that could shut the institution down.

“It is a very unusual occurrence in the world, that a government would pass legislation, especially in eastern Europe, to close a university without much consultation, and so quickly – and according to some people, without getting a good legal opinion about it within the context of eastern Europe,” said Julie McMullin, Vice‐Provost (International), who chairs Western’s Scholars at Risk Committee.

On April 10, Hungarian President Janos Ader signed into law amendments to Hungary’s National Higher Education Legislation restricting academic freedom for CEU, a private graduate institution founded by Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros and currently presided over by former Canadian Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff. The institution has been granting American- and Hungarian-accredited masters and doctoral degrees for more than 20 years.

Veteran political observers across the globe see the law as a manifestation of a long-running Orban feud with Soros.

The controversial law requires universities in Hungary to have a campus in their home countries. CEU is accredited in Hungary and New York; it does not have a U.S. campus. The law forbids CEU from issuing American degrees, requiring it to open a campus in the United States – under the control of the Hungarian government, giving it the power to deny work permits to faculty members from outside the European Union, and use the visa system to restrict the university’s ability to choose its students.

Thousands of voices worldwide – including politicians, academics, institutions, public figures and Nobel laureates – have since spoken out in support of CEU, sending letters to Ader and voicing their concerns through protests and a social media campaign.

Western extended its support earlier this week.

On Wednesday, European Union (EU) Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans launched an investigation into the law. Those findings are expected to be complete by the end of April, when EU leaders hold a summit in Brussels. The probe will explored if the new law conflicts with EU rules and if it could apply to other European universities.

Western has been a member of Scholars at Risk, an international network of higher education institutions and individuals working to protect scholars and promote academic freedom, for about a decade. Recently, it has concentrated its efforts into a committee, meeting to discuss matters relating to academic freedom worldwide.

“From time to time, the network tries to mobilize its members to act in solidarity with things they see as being particularly problematic around the world. Although it is usually in support of scholars who have been jailed or threatened, or fired from their university positions just by virtue of doing their academic work, this is the first time we’ve received word from about an institution that is being closed by a government, asking us to reach out in support of CEU,” McMullin explained.

“The letter of support for CEU is one action in the larger context of the Scholars at Risk work we are doing at Western. It’s this notion that our ideas of academic freedom are different in different places around the world and are being challenged in a multitude of ways across the globe. How can we, here, do something to help in that regard?”