Soros-founded university says it has been kicked out of Hungary as an autocrat tightens his grip – The Washington Post


An American university established a quarter-century ago to educate a new generation of leaders and scholars after communism’s collapse in Central and Eastern Europe said Monday it has been kicked out of its home in Hungary.

The ejection marked one of the surest signals to date of autocracy’s return to the country, and the region, after decades of relative freedom. It is the first time a university has been forced out of a European Union nation.

Central European University has long been considered among the world’s finest graduate schools, attracting students from across the globe, and it is widely seen as the best in Hungary. 

But the university, which was founded by Hungarian American financier George Soros, has also been the target for nearly two years of a right-wing government that has systematically consolidated control and marginalized dissent. 

Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been particularly ruthless in attacking anything associated with Soros, whose open and liberal philosophy is the antithesis of the illiberal, nationalist and nativist view celebrated by Orban.

The university said Monday it was left with no choice but to move its primary campus to Vienna next year after Orban’s government refused to acknowledge an agreement that would enable the school to continue to admit new students in Budapest. 

“Arbitrary eviction of a reputable university is a flagrant violation of academic freedom,” the university said in announcing the move. “It is a dark day for Europe and a dark day for Hungary.

The university, which has dual accreditation in Hungary and the United States, has enjoyed robust, bipartisan backing in Congress, where members expressed concern about the threat to academic freedom and the precedent of a U.S. institution being kicked out by an American ally. 

Despite the Soros affiliation, CEU was also, for a time, even defended by the Trump administration. President Trump’s ambassador arrived in Budapest this summer on a mission, he said, to broker an agreement and keep CEU in the country. 

But last week, after it became clear there would be no deal, Ambassador David B. Cornstein broke with previous U.S. policy on the matter. In an interview with The Washington Post, he refused to criticize Orban — whom he described as his “friend” — and pinned the blame on Soros, who he said had been insufficiently acquiescent to the government. 

Cornstein — an 80-year-old New Yorker who made his fortune in the jewelry, gambling and telemarketing businesses and is a close friend of Trump’s — compared the university’s plight to his own experience selling jewelry at department stores.

“I was a guest in another guy’s store,” he said. “The university is in another country. It would pay to work with the government.”

He also minimized the university’s importance — comparing its 1,500 students unfavorably with what he described as much larger campuses at Ohio State and Michigan — and appeared baffled by why the school’s fate had generated wider interest.  

“It doesn’t have anything to do with academic freedom,” he said. 

The government’s campaign against CEU began in early 2017, soon after Trump’s inauguration. Legislation passed that spring by the Hungarian parliament appeared to specifically target the university by requiring all foreign-based school to have academic programs in their home countries. 

CEU created a program at Bard College, in New York, and it was certified by state authorities. But the Hungarian government did not acknowledge the arrangement, and last month government officials signaled that they never would. 

With the legislation set to take effect on Jan. 1, university leaders said they were forced to shift to Vienna to continue admitting new students.



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