Daniel Penev, 23, is a Bulgarian journalist and a member of the Association of European Journalists – Bulgaria (AEJ-Bulgaria). He has a double-major B.A. degree in journalism and political science and international relations from the American University in Bulgaria (AUBG). Since September 2016, Daniel has been pursuing an M.A. degree in international relations at Central European University (CEU) in Budapest, Hungary.
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On the evening of 28 March, Michael Ignatieff, President and Rector of the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest, Hungary, sent an email to students, faculty, and staff, informing them about proposed amendments to Act CCIV of 2011 on National Higher Education, tabled in the Hungarian parliament earlier that day. If adopted, the amendments would prevent CEU from operating as a higher education institution in Hungary.
This email kicked off one of the most turbulent weeks in the history of CEU, which celebrated its 25th anniversary only last year. The controversial draft bill, seen by many as a direct attack on CEU, has made the headlines across Europe and North America, with stories published by Reuters, the BBC, the Guardian, the Washington Post, the New York Times, Bloomberg, Foreign Policy, Deutsche Welle, Politico.eu, and EurActiv.com, among others. Ambassadors of various countries and other politicians have rallied behind the university, calling on the Hungarian government to withdraw the proposed amendments. The thousands of statements, letters, emails, and social media posts in support of CEU came from university presidents, rectors, professors, and researchers.
One open letter, in which over 150 prominent scholars, including 14 Nobel Prize laureates, urge the Hungarian government to withdraw the tabled legislation, merits a special note because it highlights CEU’s contribution to education and research.
“We would like to express our admiration for Central European University, which is a leading university in the region, and is well integrated in the broader system of Hungarian and European higher education,” the scholars wrote. “We have learned a tremendous amount from, and cooperated productively with, researchers from CEU. We have been fortunate to meet many students who received postgraduate degrees at CEU, after obtaining a world-class basic education in Hungary – and other Central and Eastern European – public universities. CEU’s integration in and cooperation with other academic institutions in the region is fundamental to the success of Hungary.”
As a CEU student pursuing an M.A. degree in international relations, I see the support and the praise CEU has received as a confirmation of the rightness of my decision to continue my education in this institution. Since I arrived in Budapest in September last year, I have had the privilege and the pleasure to acquire new knowledge, work with peers and faculty with diverse cultural and academic backgrounds, and listen to guest lectures by prominent speakers just a few hundred meters away from the Danube – all of this thanks to CEU. The past seven months have allowed me to learn what CEU is, what it does, what it stands for, and what it should continue to be, do, and stand for. In Budapest.
There is no doubt that the government’s actions constitute a ruthless attack not just on one particular institution but on academic freedom and integrity more generally. At the same time, this awkward and frustrating situation presents us with a wonderful opportunity to remind ourselves what CEU represents and why and how it matters.
At a time when education features among the most important, yet most financially formidable, investments in one’s life, CEU allows thousands of students like me to complete high-quality graduate and postgraduate degrees for little or no money – something they would never be able to do if they could not rely on the generous scholarships that CEU offers. As a Bulgarian, I know the vital role education plays in shaping the political, economic, social, and cultural development of a country, especially one in transition from one-party rule and a planned economy to democratic governance and a free-market economy.
According to the 2017 QS World University Rankings, many of the degree programs offered at CEU rank in the world’s top 50 (politics and international relations), top 100 (social policy and administration, sociology, philosophy), top 150 (history) and top 200 (economics, law). The presence of such an educational center in Central and Eastern Europe gives aspiring academics, researchers, analysts, politicians, diplomats, lawyers, historians, economists, and businessmen the chance to receive the kind of education they have long dreamt about regardless of their families’ financial situation. This matters particularly to people from Central and Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, as they can study closer to home and in a city with a fantastic location, a rich history, and an intellectually stimulating environment where living costs are much lower compared to cities like London, Paris, New York, Washington, or Toronto. Add the state-of-the-art classrooms, the fairytale-like library, and the enormous amount of diverse research resources and facilities, and CEU becomes a utopia-turned-reality for anyone seeking to expand his/her intellectual horizons.
CEU’s significance is not limited to the degree programs and services it offers. What makes this institution special is the approximately 2,000 people who study, teach, do research, and keep the administration running, along with some 14,000 alumni across the globe. A cliché or not, it is these people of different ages, nationalities, religions, milieus, and academic backgrounds who have helped make CEU the institution it is today. CEU is the place where students can express their opinions freely and count on the assistance of faculty and staff at any time. CEU is the place where professors enthusiastically share their expertise and experience with students but also have the courage to acknowledge the gaps in their own knowledge. CEU is the place where the president and rector says that he wants “to hear the sound of laughter in the corridors [on campus]” and that if “that happens, I’ll know we’re learning together.” CEU is the place where any staff member, from the guards at the entrance of the various buildings to the ladies at the restaurant to the librarians, greet you with a smile that helps even the most timid person feel at home. CEU is the place where people exchange information quickly and transparently via multiple channels and look for solutions to problems together. The CEU community’s response to the proposed legislative amendments perfectly illustrates the human element behind the three-letter abbreviation.
In line with the values and principles of open society, CEU has since its establishment brought to Budapest prominent thinkers and scholars to discuss the most pertinent topics of the day and further inspire students and faculty. Whether it is a guest lecture, a discussion panel, a conference, or a workshop, it doesn’t matter much. What matters, instead, is the fact that CEU hosts multiple and diverse events virtually every day throughout the entire academic year. If I confine myself to the guest lectures of interest to me only during the winter semester (9 January – 31 March), I can, with great delight, say that I had the chance to listen to internationally renowned speakers, politicians, and diplomats like Timothy Garton Ash (professor of European studies at Oxford University), Mark Lilla (professor of humanities at Columbia University), Jan-Werner Müller (professor of politics at Princeton University and a visiting fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna), Ivan Krastev (chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna), Jacques Rupnik (professor at Sciences Po), Morgan Johansson (Minister for Justice and Migration of Sweden), and Liubov Nepop (Ambassador of Ukraine to Hungary). Events of this kind not only benefit CEU students and faculty but contribute to the academic vibe of Budapest and Hungary as a whole.
Budapest has been CEU’s home for more than two decades. In return, CEU has made Budapest a more visible and attractive spot on the academic and cultural map of Europe. CEU and Budapest need each other.
In case you still wonder how CEU matters to Hungary and why it should remain in Budapest, you’d better turn to Zoltan Kovacs for more information. Among other academic achievements, Kovacs has an M.A. in History (1993) and a Ph.D. in History (2002) from CEU. Kovacs, as you might know, is the spokesperson of Viktor Orban’s government – the very same government that aspires to make CEU’s operation in Hungary impossible or, in the very least, impracticable.
April 1, 2017