Adam Bodnar: Let’s defend universities

  • Budapeszt

In Budapest, thousands of Hungarian and foreign students, professors and private individuals protested against the proposed amendment to the law on higher education. According to the demonstrators and many academic circles in Europe and in the world, as well as many states and politicians, the planned reform poses a threat to the operation of one of the key institutions in our region – the Central European University (CEU).

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is not hiding that this is the intention of the authorities. Among the main reasons for the reform, there is the will to “limit the influence” of the famous American financier, philanthropist and civil society patron George Soros who finances the CEU and certain human rights organizations in Hungary.

Michael Ignatieff, CEU rector and world-famous Canadian historian and political scientist, wrote about the amendment: if introduced, it would make our further operation in Budapest impossible. The university is also defended by the US Department of State: we call on the Hungarian government not to take any legislative steps that would pose a threat to the CEU and its independence. Over 100 universities from different countries have already expressed their concern and objections.

This is because the university is an extraordinary entity. According to various data, every year it has over 1.5 thousand master’s degree and doctoral degree graduates whose diplomas are recognized across the European Union and USA. Among the lecturers, there are Nobel Prize winners. The students and professors come from over a hundred countries. The students mostly come from low-income background and are supported by a scholarship programme which partly covers the costs of their study and stay in Budapest. Incidentally, financial support provided by G. Soros was once used by young Viktor Orbán who, thanks to that support, could study political philosophy in Oxford.

I also have the honour to have been a scholarship beneficiary and to have graduated from the CEU. In 2001, I completed a postgraduate course in comparative constitutional law at that university. This was one of my main education and life experiences. I could make use of the achievements of many outstanding scientists. I met hundreds of young people from all over the world, who were eager to learn, creative and open. Recently, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the CEU, together with professor Paweł Rowiński, PhD, Vice-President of the Polish Academy of Sciences, and over a dozen other scientists, officials and politicians e.g. from Croatia, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, Ukraine and USA, we received a special award for the commitment and contribution to the development of the CEU. This is a university which brings people together, integrates them across borders, creates opportunities for the development of scientific cooperation. As a result, over the last 25 years it has become an important pillar of the changes that take place in the countries of our region, has contributed to the development of democracy and strengthened the role of human rights.

I do not want to refer to the details of the reform developed in Hungary. Each country has the right to shape its own academic policy, as long as it complies with the EU regulations and international law. However, it will be very bad if the CEU, a recognized institution with all its achievements, becomes a victim of internal political conflicts, as pointed out by the media which at the same time remind of the upcoming elections in Hungary in 2018.

Therefore, I wish to express my strong solidarity with all those persons and communities who defend the University today, know its value and realize how much it is needed for the development of thousands of young people from all over the world. They also know the significance of solidarity and search for mutual understanding between peoples. I remember that in 2008, many CEU graduates united and appealed to their colleagues from Georgia and Russia to remember about their common values despite the war and the Russian occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, not to allow the hatred take over their hearts in those difficult times.

Today, I am calling on the Polish academic community to take an active approach to the matter of the CEU. My appeal is addressed not only to those who have already benefited, or who intend to benefit, from the hospitality of this truly open and friendly institution, but also to all those who value the autonomy of universities, freedom of scientific research and access to good education. To all those who believe that such dynamic and independent academic institutions are an indispensable element of democracy.

Let me add one more thing. According to the media reports, in the case there is a need to relocate the CEU to another city, invitations have already been extended by mayor of Słupsk Robert Biedroń and mayor of Vilnius Remigijus Simasius. I love both cities but let’s not give up Budapest so easily. This is not only about the seat of the university. This is about the future of our region and about maintaining the ability of critical thinking. Without universities it will be difficult.


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