Sunday

29th May 2022

Opinion

Orban’s unpatriotic attack on CEU

  • The picturesque city of Budapest: The loss of Central European University could deliver a serious blow to its economy. (Photo: Pixabay)

Viktor Orban's legislative attack on Central European University (CEU) has been rightly condemned as an offence to the autonomy of research and higher education.

But Orban's actions are not only undemocratic and contrary to basic European values - they are also deeply unpatriotic, from both the Hungarian and Central European perspective.

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  • Viktor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary, could be putting personal disputes above the interests of Hungarians. (Photo: Council of the European Union)

We challenge Orban on patriotic grounds, mindful of his commendable record as a freedom fighter for Hungary and Central Europe in the 1980s. We also acknowledge that people may differ on how they understand our nation's interests.

But no plausible understanding of national, or regional interests can justify the premeditated efforts to chase a top academic institution out of Budapest and destroy CEU's pivotal contribution to the economy and society of Hungary and Central Europe.

Let us imagine that Orban succeeds in destroying our university.

Hundreds of Hungarian students will be deprived of world-class education at home, which is free of charge or supplemented by generous scholarships.

Thousands of foreign students and international faculty staff will not be coming to Budapest. No longer will they spend their money here, or get acquainted with Hungary and its rich culture.

Hundreds of local employees will lose their jobs.

And what will Hungary get in exchange for all of this? Not much.

Orban's government hopes that CEU's destruction will bolster other Hungarian universities. This is a grotesque argument.

Today, Paris has thirteen Sorbonne universities and nobody thinks of closing one to help the others. In Boston: Harvard, MIT, Tufts, Boston College and a number of other great institutions jointly contribute to a globally attractive cluster of innovation.

Closing down CEU will, in fact, greatly harm other local institutions, not least because it will send a chilling message: in Hungary, a university can be destroyed just because students, faculty and staff might hold differing opinions to those of the country’s ruling party.

Think twice

International academic partners will think twice before bringing any major project to Hungary.

If Orban feels CEU is overly dominant in the local academic scene, his government should strengthen other Hungarian universities, or set up a new institution with international ambition and reach similar level to that of CEU. A true patriot focuses on building - not destroying.

CEU is not sponsored by the Hungarian state, but instead by a generous endowment donated by George Soros and numerous others.

Viktor Orban may virulently dislike Soros - the man who sponsored Orban's own studies at Oxford - but his decision to reject tens of millions of dollars in annual charitable investment in his country’s underfunded higher education system will unleash very real harm to scores of Hungarians.

Orban, and his illiberal counterparts in Poland, often talks about the need to reclaim our national dignity. But there is no better way to deal with everyday indignities suffered by millions of our compatriots than by breaking the glass ceiling of our current middle-income economic model, based on cheap labour.

If Hungary, Poland and other countries in the region are to succeed on this path, they must use every opportunity to promote innovation and invest heavily in developing local high-end skills.

Orban and the region’s other leaders often claim to understand these essential challenges in our region. During the recent CEE Innovators Summit, the prime ministers of the four Visegrad countries signed the “Warsaw Declaration,” promising to bolster knowledge-based economic competitiveness.

Sad irony

In a moment of sad irony, the law targeting our university was introduced on the very same day as this pledge.

For Western-educated professionals like us, this chasm between solemn words and disappointing actions is truly troubling.

We all heeded the calls from Orban, or his Polish counterparts, for us to return back home and help out in making Central and Eastern Europe successful.

Each of us received a doctorate from some of the world’s most prestigious academic institutions: Yale, Harvard, and Princeton. And yet, we went back to Central Europe, and Budapest, to contribute to our respective nations.

Through our research and teaching, we have been deeply engaged in helping Hungarian and Central European governmental institutions to improve their policy decisions and management practices.

Each year we train dozens of highly-skilled economists and managers, who pursue successful careers in business, government, and academia.

We have talked the talk, and walked our patriotic walk. Now, it is also time for Orban to consider what patriotism truly is in the twenty-first century and how his actions affect both his fellow Hungarians and the broader region.

Maciej Kisilowski is an Associate Professor of Law and Public Management, Miklos Koren is a Professor of Economics, and Adam Zawadowski is an Assistant Professor of Economics - all at the Central European University.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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