The Canary In the Coal Mine

What the proposed closing of a university in Hungary’s capital means for the region as a whole

Michael Ignatieff, Wojciech Przybylski
3 April 2017

On Wednesday, the Hungarian government announced plans for a new law that would effectively shut down the Central European University (CEU). In an exclusive interview, Michael Ignatieff, President and Rector of CEU, explains how his struggle today is pivotal to the academic freedom in Central and Eastern Europe.  

Ignatieff says that it is the first time in the history of modern Europe that a European state has led a direct legislative attack on the academic freedom of a university and that Mr. Orban’s desire for total domination will damage the country he thinks he is defending. The rector’s message to the prime minister is clear: his institution will never close, will never bow down to threats and will continue to teach students. Read also Zsuzsanna Vegh’s account of the crisis.

 

Wojciech Przybylski: In your book Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics you wrote that timing is everything. It is late in the afternoon on Friday, we are in your office at the CEU in Budapest, everyone is on alert, the phones are ringing, sound of incoming mail bombarding your inbox; do you think you’re in the right moment, the right time? Are you a fortunate person?

 

Michael Ignatieff: [Laughing…] Well you do have to laugh, don’t you? I should pick one time, but you know, I seem to have done this twice; I worked in Canadian politics, and the night I was elected, the government I thought I was going to join was defeated.

 

I took this job in Budapest because I am married to a Hungarian, and I have deep connections to Hungary and love the place. I knew the political climate but thought it would be interesting and invigorating to defend free institutions in a society where… you know, this is a complicated place.

 

What is it? Is it a liberal democracy, is it a free society? I knew it would be challenging, whatever you call it. I knew defending academic freedom in this place would be challenging, but I frankly did not expect this to happen.

 

Most people assumed that he (Orban) would not risk an attack on an institution which has been part of the scene here for 25 years and poses no strategic challenge to his rule on the political scene. We are not in politics, we cannot change it, (politics) is like the weather around here. And yet, he has decided to go for it. So, we deal with everything as it comes.

 

One of the enormous advantages of being a free institution with a private endowment, which is almost unique in Eastern Europe in that way, is that it gives us the capacity to vigorously resist. I really do feel, I hope it is not pompous to say so, that we are fighting a battle not just on behalf of CEU but on behalf of academic freedom in Eastern and Central Europe.

 

I said this all along, but it has become emotional for me. Just five minutes down the street from here is a plaque of John von Neumann, the greatest mathematician of the 20th century. The Hungarian contribution to the intellectual life of Europe and the world is enormous. It’s true that my, as well as my wife’s, favourite poet is Czeslaw Milosz, but pretty close up there would be Attila Jozsef.

What is dismaying to me is that this is a government that talks about a national revival but does not seem to respect its own traditions, does not seem to respect the fact that one of the things that makes Hungary is an absolutely outsized contribution to the culture of the world. And a pre-condition for this to continue is to have some kind of freedom for its institutions. That is the biggest issue for me.

 

When you were coming here, you may not have been so interested in the political scene, but now you are a part of it. Do you feel like you have a broader perspective? You have just launched the series on the enemies of open society, which appears to be an increasing global phenomenon, where Viktor Orban is just one example.

 

Yes, you can run a narrative that Mr. Putin tried to shut down the European University in St. Petersburg, an institution I know well. Mr. Erdogan is closing campuses and imprisoning students while I am sitting here, writing recommendations for my former Turkish students to get into American PhD programs so they can escape.

 

But the legislation proposed by this government marks the first time in the history of modern Europe that a European state has led a direct legislative attack on the academic freedom of a university.

 

I do not know why Mr. Orban wants to be in a club that consists of Erdogan and Putin, nor why he does not want to be in a club that includes free societies that respect the freedom of institutions. I actually do not understand it. It seems like an act of self-harm. It seems politically irrational. What votes does he get by attacking a university?

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I think that the deeper rationale, maybe, is that he simply does not want free institutions standing in the way of his increasing political domination, and that puts him in a club of people who think that democracy is a majority rule.

Majoritarian populism is very popular. You can draw analogies with Mr. Trump and with other places. But what is interesting is that every American has had a lesson of what democracy actually consists in. It consists in elections, it also consists in checks and balances.

Mr. Trump has just discovered the power of congress. Mr. Trump has just discovered the power of the courts. A genuine democracy is the place where free institutions balance power against power.

The underpinning rationale is that these are the leaders that very consciously set out to eliminate all obstacle to power in their path, and they do so in the name of democracy and in the name of the people. But there is simply no doubt that this ends up being deeply destructive to the people in whose name these actions are being conducted.

So, to answer your question – yes; there is a wider context. But this is not a political campaign against the Orban’s regime. I cannot do that, I am the president of a university, not the leader of a political party. I have no interest in challenging Mr. Orban. If he had not come after me, I would not be fighting back. It’s not my country.

But if you come after a free institution, he’s got to learn that free institutions will fight him. That’s what we have to do, that’s what freedom means.

So, what is in your arsenal to fight back with?

Here is what my day is like: I have just sent a note to the Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge, an institution which some people consider to be the greatest university of the world, but it is certainly the powerhouse in European science. Early in the day, we announced that the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford has joined our trustees.

Thirty minutes before that, I was on the phone with the President of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, which is a great institution. He simply phoned me, out of the blue, saying: how can I help? Even earlier in the day, we received notice that seventeen Nobel prize winners have signed a letter of support along with a 150 other distinguished academics.

Every professional association in the academic field that we can think of is willing to write a letter in our support. Mr. Orban does not seem to understand that the ultimate effect of this action will lead to the increase of academic and intellectual isolation in Hungary.

That is not only for everyone in the international academic community, but in the international business community as well. I mean, are you going to risk investment in Hungary, in a place where they are shutting down a university? It is like a canary in the coal mine – it tells you that the investment climate is insecure and you should not do it.

To paraphrase one of the popes, we do have divisions, but we also have certain moral authority, which in the last 48 hours has brought about notable support. I do not want to huff and puff and say that everything is wonderful – it is a tough battle.

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I know what matters to this man, and I do not think he cares what the President of the Hebrew University or other academics think, but it would be wise for him, politically, to pay some attention.

I will challenge this point-of-view. From the perspective of a majoritarian populist, it is important to realise that they see themselves as under attack, and the more they are isolated, the better. Just a year ago, the Hungarian foreign minister, Péter Szijjártó, proudly declared that the more enemies the government has, the more it knows it is right. This echoes the slogans of the early 20th century and reminds me that the enemies of liberalism have a long tradition. What are the winning strategies?

As you know, I was in politics. There are moments when you can rejoice in your enemies and use your enemies to rally your friends. I think, over time, the Hungarian people are going to get a little tired.

You can keep pursuing the international, the liberal cosmopolitans all you want, but it does not build a hospital, it does not fix the street lamps. It does not evade the reality that Hungarians have problems, and they want their government to pay attention to them instead of constantly engaging in diversionary tactics.

I have been here long enough to know that the prime minister has support. I do not underestimate it. I take it very seriously. He is the elected leader, and he has perfectly legitimate authority, but do not think he is hegemonic. As time goes by and one keeps inventing new enemies, at certain point the Hungarian people, whether over their glasses of wine or in front of their televisions, are going to say – just how stupid do you think we are?

But this takes time. I want to make it clear, and I do not underestimate Mr. Orban as a politician. He is one of the two or three cleverest politicians in Europe. I cannot tell him what to do, and I cannot tell him when his string is going to run out. But I do not think it’s indefinite.

Have you been reading closely or were you interested in his political idea of illiberalism? Because to me the concept seems to be directly opposing what any university stands for.

Actually, the funny thing is I have tried to flip it around instead of engaging in the ritual of denunciation. So, that illiberal democracy turns the spotlight on us and asks: what is it about this open society, why is it so unpopular? Why is that the people do not want to be open but closed off? Why do they prefer closed frontiers to open ones?

Why is it that they feel that their open societies – and this is very strong theme in Poland – that the transition (from communism), their entry into the market economy and the creation of liberal democracy has resulted in corruption, resulted in inequality? Those are the critics on the left, but on the right, you hear that it has resulted in the loss of national identity and the diminution of religious traditions and faiths.

There is a lot of very pertinent criticism of open society, and I actually think that the challenge for our university is to reflect honestly about what liberal democracy means and why is it that open society is so unconvincing. There is so many millions of people who thought this was the way into the future. We have to be honest.

Last night, Jacques Rupnik was talking at the CEU about Europe and why the European ideal is so increasingly unpersuasive. Why it no longer seems a destination but just a kind of bureaucratic mess. He made a note about the euro banknotes, in which, they are simply empty abstract designs omitting great national champions of culture or science. I thought it was a wonderful symbol of the emptiness. Not just of Europe but also the emptiness of open society.

Read also Jacques Rupnik’s article “The Other Europe”

I have written for 25 years about the dangers of nationalism, but I never underestimated and no personal beliefs and progressive values should ever underestimate the emotional force of faith, the emotional force of a nation, the emotional force of language, the emotional force of culture.

In some weird way, open society has backed itself into a position where it appears to be hostile to all the things that actually give meaning to people’s lives. This does not make me a conservative. I have always believed this. I am a Canadian, I am not a rootless cosmopolitan. I said, 30 years ago, in one of my books, called Blood and Belonging, that cosmopolitanism is a privilege of those with a passport. In other words, cosmopolitanism is a privilege of those with a secured national identity in a defensible state.

I do not think we have fully accepted how much resentment and a certain kind of condescension towards people’s deepest allegiances cost liberal society and also cost Europe. I do not think this is a bad time for a liberal democracy, I think the reverse; I think this is a wonderful time to smarten up.

What would be your message to Viktor Orban about open society? You had meetings with him, but if you wanted to make it public, what would be your main message that others ought to hear as well? 

My message to Mr. Orbán is: anybody who actually loves Hungary and respects its intellectual and cultural traditions, who understands what the academics and intellectuals of this country have contributed to Europe, would respect the academic freedom of its institutions and not seek to destroy them for the desire of total domination. That desire will damage the country he thinks he is defending. I really do believe that.

And the other point, just in case there is any doubt, we will defend the academic independence of this institution, come what may. This institution will never close, this institution will never bow down to threats.

This institution will continue to teach students – and I hope we will teach lots of students from Poland – we would love to see more of your students come to CEU because they will join an absolutely unique community of students from 120 countries.

I have been critical of open society, but go to any of our classrooms, and you will see open society at its best.

[Photo: Wikimedia Commons]

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