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World Ignoring global outcry, Hungarian government restricts freedom of university

Students protest Prime Minister Viktor Orban's efforts to force a George Soros-founded university out of the country in Budapest, Hungary, on April 2, 2017.

BERNADETT SZABO/REUTERS

The future of Central European University (CEU) is uncertain after the Hungarian parliament on Tuesday voted to pass legislative amendments that the school has said will force it to close.

Protesters took to the streets in Budapest within hours of the vote, demanding president Janos Ader veto the measure. CEU rector Michael Ignatieff said the 21-year-old university will turn to Mr. Ader in a bid to stop the implementation of the law.

"We will respectfully ask the president to exercise his constitutional responsibility to review the legislation," Mr. Ignatieff said in a news conference.

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The law "was introduced a week ago and has been rammed through Parliament. This is not how a normal democratic system should function," he said.

For the past three days – Mr. Ignatieff, the former Liberal Party leader who took over as rector in October 2016 – has been lobbying politicians in Washington to intervene with the Hungarian government. CEU is a U.S.-Hungarian university incorporated in New York state and funded largely through donations from philanthropist George Soros. Under legislation passed on Tuesday, all foreign universities must have a branch in their home countries. CEU is the only one among nearly 30 postsecondary institutions that cannot meet this requirement.

Some observers have suggested the university could move to Prague or Vienna. Doing so would deal a blow to its academic community, however, and send another worrying signal about Hungary's democracy, the school maintains.

"The CEU community will not go into exile," said Liviu Matei, CEU's provost. Relocating would force hundreds of Hungarian professors and staff and their families to leave, Mr. Matei said. "What kind of government is it that pushes citizens by the hundreds, by the thousands, out of the country?"

The legislation was introduced only a week ago. Thousands of people protested in Budapest on the weekend, and Canada's ambassador to Hungary spoke out on Twitter. "Strong mobilisation in support of #CEU in #Hungary and abroad sends healthy, powerful message that #AcademicFreedom matters," Isabelle Poupart wrote. But no objection, including statements of support from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Princeton University and Nobel-winning economists, deterred the government.

"People felt that given its international stature, given its high-profile leadership, that somehow the CEU would be left alone," said Robert Austin, associate professor at the Centre for European, Russian and Eurasian studies (CERES) at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs.

From Poland to Hungary to Serbia, the region is being rocked as governments move to reverse some of the political liberalization of the past 20 years.

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Yet even as Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban's government has centralized power and limited the influence of non-governmental organizations, CEU has not been a vocal critic, said Michael Merlingen, a professor of international relations at CEU. Dr. Merlingen earned his PhD from the University of British Columbia and has taught at CEU for almost 20 years.

We "thought that even if [the government] did not love us, they respected us for what we did, and did not do," Dr. Merlingen said in an e-mail interview. "Many are also concerned and fear their personal futures should CEU close or relocate to another country. They have built their lives in Budapest, married Hungarians or fellow expats, raised their children here and thought they would retire in Budapest."

Students who are planning to attend CEU in the fall should stick to those plans, said Leon Botstein, the chair of CEU's board of trustees.

"We will ensure the continuity of the program," said Mr. Botstein, who is also president of Bard College. "The worst thing that can happen is for a bastion of academic freedom to not be able to resist."

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