Let me tell you about this university in Europe. It’s a small, private institution in which specializes in the humanities and social sciences. It’s run on western lines, and is one of the best institutions in the country for research. And now the Government is trying to shut it down, mainly because it finds the institution politically troublesome.
Think I’m talking about Central European University (CEU) in Budapest? Well, I’m not. I’m talking about the European University of Saint Petersburg (EUSP), which has had its license to operate revoked mainly because of its program of studies on gender and LGBTQ issues. And I’m kind of interested in why we focus on one and not the other.
First, let’s get down to brass tacks about what’s going on at Central European University (CEU). This Budapest-based institution, founded by George Soros 25 years ago during the transition away from socialism, is a gem in the region. No fields of study were more corrupted by four decades of communist rule than the Social Sciences, and CEU has done a stellar job not just in becoming a top-notch institution in its own right, but in becoming a bastion of free thought in the region.
The Hungarian government, which not to put too fine a point on it is run by a bunch of nationalist ruffians, has decided to try to restrict CEU’s operations by legislating a set of provisions which in theory apply to all universities but in practice apply only to CEU. The most important of these provisions basically says that institutions which offer foreign-accredited degrees (CEU is accredited by the Middle States Commission, which handles most accreditation of overseas institutions) have to have a campus in their “home country” in order to be able to operate in Hungary and be subject to a formal bilateral agreement between the “home” government and the Hungarian one (CEU does business on the basis of an international agreement, but it’s between Hungary and the State of New York, not the USA). There is, as CEU’s President Michael Ignatieff (yes, him) says, simply no benefit to CEU to do this: it is simply a tactic to raise CEU’s cost of doing business.
So, as you’ve probably gathered by now, this is not an attack on academic freedom the way we would use that term in the west. We’re not talking about chilling individual scholars here. The ruling Hungarian coalition couldn’t care less what gets taught at CEU: what bothers them is that the institution exists to support liberalism and pluralism. What we’re talking about is something much broader than just academic freedom; it’s about weakening independent institutions in an illiberal state. It’s also about anti-semitism (the right wing in Hungary routinely refer to CEU as “Soros University” so as to remind everyone of the institution’s Jewish founder). Yet somehow, the rallying cry is “academic freedom”, when plain old freedom and liberalism would be much more accurate.
I wonder why we don’t hear cries for academic freedom for EUSP, where in fact the academic angle – the university’ research program in gender and queer studies being targeted by a homophobic state – is much more clear cut. Is it because we reckon Russia is beyond salvation and Hungary is not? That would certainly explain our anemic reaction to increasing restrictions on academic freedom in China (where criticism of government is fine, but criticism of the Communist Party is likely to end extremely badly). It would explain why Turkey has faced essentially no academic consequences (boycotts, etc) for its ongoing purge of academic leaders.
I don’t mean to play the whole “why-do-we-grieve-bombings-in-Paris-but-not-Beirut” game. I get it, some places matter more in the collective imagination than others. But I actually think that CEU’s decision to portray this as an academic freedom issue rather that one of freedom tout court plays a role here. We can get behind calls for academic freedom (particularly when they are articulated by English-speaking academics) because academic freedom is something that is everywhere and always being tested around the edges (yeah, McGill, I’m looking at you). But calls for just plain old “freedom”? or “Liberalism”? The academy seems to get po-mo ickies about those.
Frankly, we need to get less squeamish about this. Academic freedom as we know it in the west does not exist in a vacuum. It exists because of underlying societal commitment to pluralism and liberalism. If we only try to defend the niche freedom without defending the underlying values, we will fail.
So, by all means, let’s support CEU. But let’s not do it just for academic freedom. Let’s do it for better reasons.