VIENNA — On an overcast Tuesday afternoon in late September, students pored over laptops in the library, chatted in the hallways and congregated after class in small groups outside a sleek, newly renovated glass building in Vienna’s southern Favoriten district. It was the second day of classes in Central European University’s new home, a former bank.

But signs that things were not quite as they should be were difficult to ignore. The sliding glass doors at CEU’s entrance were plastered with signs announcing current safety procedures, noting a requirement to wear masks and keep distance from others. A hand sanitizer station stood directly inside and machines checking students’ temperatures were unveiled this week. And inside classrooms, fewer than the usual number of students occupied spaced-out desks listening to professors along with classmates joining via Zoom from faraway places.

Crisis, and adaptability, are nothing new for CEU, founded in Budapest in 1991 by the Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros and soon one of the city’s important institutions. But after the increasingly authoritarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán began a series of anti-Semitic political attacks against Soros, he made the university one of his highest-profile targets in 2017, using a complicated set of accreditation requirements designed to drive it out of Hungary.

Relocating to Vienna, CEU officially opened its new campus a year ago. Students and professors split time between both cities last year, and starting this fall nearly all of its academic programs will be taught here.

But the already difficult move from Budapest to Vienna has been complicated by something no one could have foreseen: a global pandemic, which has shut borders—including the one between Austria and Hungary—and posed significant challenges for universities around the globe. Now CEU is dealing with the fallout from two crises simultaneously, the political one that drove it from Budapest and the public health one keeping many students from returning to campus. The new class brings together 700 students from 90 different countries, many of whom are struggling to make it to Vienna under current travel restrictions.

“It’s just a very unique situation,” Michael Ignatieff, the president and rector of CEU, told me recently by phone. “We’re struggling like everybody with the impact of the pandemic—but at the same time we’re having to move our entire teaching apparatus across a national frontier. And if that wasn’t enough, the frontier is closed.”

 




 

Even though the university received welcome news this week in the form of a ruling from Europe’s top court invalidating the law that drove it from Budapest, CEU is in the midst of a huge transition. For a university founded on the promotion of open societies that prides itself on bringing together students and faculty from all corners of the world, the Covid era has been particularly hard to swallow.

Earlier this spring, right-wing politicians saw their dreams of renewed borders in Europe and focus on national interests realized practically overnight; far-right leaders like Orbán used the pandemic to amass more power and target political enemies. The crisis has provided nearly as big a challenge to the university’s core ideas as Orbán’s efforts to demonize it.

“A pandemic is a radical test for an open society: All around us, open societies are closing, using public health to limit the freedoms we took for granted,” Ignatieff, a former Canadian politician who took over the CEU presidency in 2016, said in his remarks during the university’s virtual opening ceremony hours after we spoke.  “All around us, leaders are disavowing the evidence of science and ignoring fact-based public policy. The values we believe in here are being challenged as never before.”

 

* * *

 

The opening of classes at the Vienna campus this week is the culmination of years of uncertainty and legal battles prompted by Orbán’s government. In the decade since he took office, he has strived to centralize control of nearly all aspects of life in Hungary: From working to obliterate the independent media to going after NGOs to demonizing migrants, he has reshaped the country into what he notoriously refers to as an “illiberal democracy.”

CEU was an ideal target. It received the vast majority of Hungary’s allotted European Union funding for higher education. And as Orbán built up a major public campaign against Soros, going after the university he founded was a way to take the fight further.

 

Before the pandemic, university president Michael Ignatieff welcomed guests, including founder George Soros, center, for the inauguration of the Vienna campus in November 2019 (Daniel Vegel, Wikimedia)

 

At issue was CEU’s accreditation in the United States, since the university offered degrees valid both there and in Hungary. In 2018, parliament passed a new law, now known as Lex CEU, requiring universities with foreign accreditation to have physical campuses in those countries as well as a signed agreement between the Hungarian government and that of the accrediting country. CEU, which is registered in the state of New York, opened a small satellite campus at Bard College; working with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, university officials raced to draw up the necessary agreements with the Hungarian government.

However, the government ultimately rejected CEU’s efforts as insufficient. The university announced its move to Vienna in late 2018. While CEU maintains a presence in Budapest—a new democracy institute as well as several other research institutes are still housed on its campus there—virtually all its actual teaching and degree programs are now in Vienna.

The legal onslaught was characteristic of Orbán’s approach to governing, says Renata Uitz, a professor of law at CEU who has closely followed the developments. Rather than going for shock-and-awe, Orbán seeks to find legal grey areas and force opponents to jump through sometimes impossible administrative hoops—all theoretically in the name of transparency, fairness or some other ambiguous value. In CEU’s case, Orbán’s argument was that he wanted to level the playing field for universities’ accreditation and prevent fraud; both goals sound eminently reasonable, but were ultimately used as justification to go after only one specific institution.

Orban “made it very clear relatively early that he’s not in the business of installing a dictatorship, he’s in the business of creating what he calls an illiberal democracy,” Uitz told me. “And what you actually see as the modus operandi of the regime is using smartly engineered legal rules to get to where they wish.”

Although the battle with CEU is now effectively over, Orbán has continued his frontal assault on academic freedom and independent research. In 2018, he banned gender studies programs at universities. Last summer, his government caused renewed protests when it placed the Academy of Sciences under its control, which members said would jeopardize their ability to conduct independent research.

And this summer, Orbán’s government proposed changes at the University of Theater and Film Arts in Budapest, announcing the state university’s ownership would be transferred to a private foundation and appointing a new board of trustees. Students and faculty cried foul: Worried those changes would bring a shift toward the government’s nationalistic and conservative worldview, nearly 100 students protested by barricading themselves in a main building on campus.

 

Students study in the CEU library

 

References to both those political developments and the pandemic were a frequent theme throughout CEU’s virtual opening ceremony.

Provost Liviu Matei opened the event by welcoming all who tuned in, “whether you are here in Vienna, in Budapest, or stranded somewhere far away from one of our two campuses.” He and other CEU leaders delivered their remarks from empty lecture halls and classrooms on campus.

And when Ignatieff addressed students, he began with: “I wish we could be together, dear friends, and there will come time I’m sure when we will. But right now, I’m afraid we’re going to have to practice—I don’t know what to call it—social distancing and digital togetherness.”

Social distancing makes for a unique and uniquely challenging task of building up a student community while keeping students safe and healthy. Cases are on the rise in Vienna, deemed a “risk area” by Germany and other nearby countries; traditional social events that would bring new students together, especially important for CEU’s new undergraduate program, are impossible under the current restrictions.

Chatting outside after class, Max and Joshua, two students in the comparative constitutional law program from Germany and the United Kingdom, respectively, told me they were happy to be able to come to campus, but said the dynamics are certainly different when more than half their class is joining via Zoom.

“We sat in a class today and were on the computer, on Zoom, with people all across the world… all the people in Africa, South Asia, all over the world, joining us virtually,” Joshua said, noting the university was still working out technical kinks. Of the 13 people in their course, only four had shown up in person that day.

 

Soros founded CEU in large part to provide high-quality international education to students in Central and Eastern Europe. Moving from Budapest to more expensive Vienna could change the school’s core identity.

 

“It’ll be interesting how many people come in the next weeks and months,” Max said, adding: “Honestly, I’m super impressed how they handled it here.”

The move has meant not only a shift for students but also significant changes for CEU’s faculty and staff. Janos Kertesz, a professor of network science, moved to Vienna this summer with his wife. I first met him in Budapest in summer 2019, when Orbán’s government was on the offensive against the Academy of Sciences.

When we spoke again this fall, Kertesz and his wife were settling in in Vienna, but he worried about how the academic year would progress—and about the many bureaucratic and logistical hurdles that still needed to be solved. He’ll teach his course this fall, an introductory course on network science, in person; the department will record class sessions for students who weren’t able to come to Vienna in person and hold separate virtual discussion sessions with them.

“How the university was accepted by the Viennese authorities and the Austrian authorities is really touching, it’s excellent, and we’re very thankful for that,” he said. “But there are bureaucratic difficulties—and especially in such a university, which has teachers from more than 40 countries, which has students from more than 100 countries, this is a major problem.”

What remains unclear is how CEU’s change of location will affect its identity and the experience it offers students. Soros founded CEU in large part to provide high-quality international education to students in Central and Eastern Europe who otherwise might not have had access to such opportunities. Some worry that moving from Budapest to Vienna would change the school’s core identity—and that basing it in a more expensive city could deter some students from enrolling or make life harder once they’re here.

Ignatieff, for his part, said Vienna is a natural new home: The city is a meeting point between the German-speaking world and central and eastern Europe, he said, and its diversity and range of international organizations will only enrich the opportunities available to CEU students.

 

A socially-distanced classroom on CEU’s Vienna campus, ready for students to arrive

 

“We do not see ourselves as a refugee university or a university in exile—we see it as a new beginning,” Ignatieff said. “I don’t think we will lose our central European identity—I think it will be reinforced and strengthened in Vienna.”

 

* * *

 

Just days after the start of classes in Vienna, the university received some welcome good news: The European Court of Justice ruled Tuesday that Lex CEU, the law that ultimately forced the university’s move to Vienna, violates European Union law.

The ruling brought a “tremendous sense of vindication” for CEU, Ignatieff said at a news conference that afternoon, adding that it amounts to “a total repudiation of Viktor Orbán’s legal strategy since 2017.” Now CEU could theoretically reestablish certain US-accredited degree programs on its Budapest campus if it wants, although Ignatieff said discussions are only just beginning.

Still, given that the university has already moved to Vienna, the ruling came far too late to change CEU’s overall situation. Earlier this summer, the university announced it had signed a contract with the city of Vienna to develop a permanent campus at a former hospital complex in the city’s 14th district. That campus is slated to open in 2025.

“This judgment is only hours old. We’re going to need time as a community, faculty staff and students, to figure out what we want to do in Budapest going forward,” Ignatieff said. “I’ve reiterated that under no circumstances are we going to reverse our decision to come to Vienna.”

As for the university’s long-term future, and that of academic freedom in Budapest, the picture remains complicated: Hungarian Justice Minister Judit Varga responded to the ruling by saying Orbán’s government will “enforce the judgment of the [ECJ] in the interest of the Hungarian people,” which indicates it has no interest in backing down from its current course.

Still, the ruling opens the prospect of at least a little more possibility for CEU in the short- to medium term—and even though Orbán may not change his tune on academic freedom, his regime will have to end someday, those I spoke with noted.

“The only hope is, as we know, that nothing lasts forever,” Kertesz said. “This government will not last forever. The question is always how long.”