Daniel Penev, What Central European University stands for: An insider’s perspective

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

 

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Observer
Guest

Благодарим Ви г-н Пенев. We thank you for your support of the noble ideas of education and progress.
And pls remember this experience with the primitive and ruinous Fascistoid regime here.

Observer
Guest

The dim and rotten Orban regime has made the news again and for the same appalling reason again. Hungary has again been talked about as the retrograde place where education, science and progress are persecuted. Back to the “before 1944” condition as this half baked Felcsut half … spoke about…
I’m sick of debates. Call me when rifles are distributed… as a revolutionary exclaimed..

Ferenc
Guest

Better be something like the “Velvet Revolution” (1989, Czechoslovakia).
Just one major problem: in current Hungary who could take the role similar to Vaclav Havel……….

Andy
Guest

Orban and Co fear the potential power of free speech, and critical thinking.

The agenda of swimming in private dough and keeping in power are enough for the Orban Corporation to ignore the common good of the people.

petofi
Guest

Most commenters here seem to be living in the bygone world of the 19th century. Truth is dead. Virtue and Principles have followed it to the grave. The efficacity of the Lie has taken over. False news is its bastard children. Pestilence is everywhere in the air. This orb will never more have fragrance and freshness. Everywhere it now smells of rottenness, like the drunken Hungarian farmer in his soiled pants. The planet is ready for the mushroom cloud. And if the rapture, than we jews can at least sell tickets for the event–might as well since Hungarians will accuse us of it anyway.

I never thought death would seem so appealing-

Observer
Guest

This is not a Fool’s Day joke so it may look deranged, I’m affraid.

At the same when the appalling attack against the CEU soil the image of Hungary around the world the clown-turned-foreign-minister appointed (brace yourselves!) an
Ambassador (with diplomatic passport, etc) of the Hungarian soccer and the Puskas affairs to spread the good name of …..

http://index.hu/sport/sportgeza/2017/04/01/futballkabare_szijjarto_elmagyarazza_miert_lett_nagykovet_szollosi/

If anything, the second news just reinforces the impressions made by the first (a nemzeti idiotizmus rendszerèrõl).

wrfree
Guest

Pete must have did some research in the detente archives. Taking a page from Chinese actions with ‘Ping Pong Diplomacy’ it looks like we have ‘Foci Diplomacy’ …;-)…
We’ll see now how foci being politicized makes Magyar football ‘great’ again.

Could be tough though as I’d bet yeah maybe they can grow some
pretty good internationally competitive players but if we see how ‘education matters’ are handled Im afraid in the quest they also might have developed players who can drive frozen ropes out from 40 yards out but are dumb as a box of rocks in the main belfry.

pappp
Guest

There’s another option.

CEU could sell itself to (or affiliate itself with) another, already established university (from NY state).

It would be stupid – because there is no rational reason whatsoever to introduce the new Hungarian law other than to ban or at least to harass CEU and liberals and intellectuals – but it could be doable.

I know that in Berlin there’s a liberal arts college which effectively sold itself to Bard College. NYU has campuses from Shanghai to Abu Dhabi. In Quatar there’s an entire Education City with a number of great universities present.

wrfree
Guest

Mr. Penev..

From your eloquent piece it sure looks like you are sharp as a tack and ‘get it’. Education and learning that is.

You completely understand that ‘learning’ is freedom. Freedom to question, analyze, develop, know, uncover and consequently to understand and learn about the wide world around us and what makes us all tick. And finally that it makes you a better person where you can build a better quality of life based on the knowledge you accrue in your efforts.

For myself, I was ‘saved’ by education. It has opened doors for me that I would not have believed possible. I am glad that you cherish the freedom to learn as I do and continue to do. Sometimes I think I would rather starve and put the money to a book rather than a meal. I wouldn’t be surprised if you do that years on when you will see what education has done for you. Good luck!

Guest

Very large demonstration for the sake of CEU in Budapest right now. Watch at ATV live.

pappp
Guest

Meanwhile Orban is in Felcsút with Pista Stumpf (judge of the Constitutional Court) watching the game like all orderly men should be doing on a Sunday afternoon. Let the kids have a bit of a party in Budapest. Only fools would worry just because some urban, liberal kids got upset.

András B. Göllner
Guest

Orbán opened a can of worms by the force of his hubris. His assault on civil society will come back to haunt him. He overestimated his influence on the new American administration. The State Department, with the approval of the White House, published a highly critical press release. His initiative will accelerate the efforts of Congress, the FBI and the mass media to explore the cover his government gave to the collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian secret service. The attack on the CEU, as Romania is showing, will endanger the Hungarian University in Romania. The Hungarian government’s positioning of “the Jewish billionaire” Soros as someone who is personally trying to destroy Christianity and the nation state by encouraging the “Muslim hordes” to overrun Europe will be shown for what it is – a mere reheating of the type of hate filled menu that thrived under Admiral Horthy’s rule, and led to the deportation and murder of 600,000 innocent Jews. Driving into the future by looking into a rearview mirror will land him, like Horthy, in a ditch.

pappp
Guest
Alas this is like saying in 1960 that communism has to collapse because it’s unsustainable. It was true, eventually, but people had to endure 30 more years. With CEU and the NGOs and Soros Orban has a clear strategy in mind (based on Russian and Israeli blueprints) and he is executing it. From Putin to Erdogan many tyrants successfully increased societal tensions, created more hatred and division and in the end won (partially or wholly rigged) elections. Why wouldn’t this work for Orban? It’s also as I mentioned great fun for him. Public executions were for a long time public entertainment, people just loved them. The anti-liberal persecutions are a modern version of those, unfortunately many people enjoy them as one can see from comments to articles. Orban figures that most people resent well-off, educated elites, urban people, people of Budapest, liberals and the worse of all is a combination of these categories (whose symbol is CEU). Orban thinks that it doesn’t matter that liberals in Budapest are upset because they wouldn’t anyway vote for Orban. As far as Orban is concerned they are only creating a tempest in a hermetically compartmentalized teapot. If and when uneducated voters in Nyíregyháza… Read more »
wrfree
Guest

Re: ‘uneducated voters in Nyiregyhaza or Szombathely’

And that reality is why I would suggest that a leader has evidently lost the plot when it comes to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in the Magyar community. The fight over CEU indeed shows how inimical a ‘democratic’ leader can be towards providing for the greater good. The thinking process does not compute.

It seems ok obviously for the political elite to be educated in the arts, literature and the sciences but the attitude appears to be different when it comes to the governed where some certainly know that value of education. But they seem to succeed in spite of actions to the contrary by their government. And they are the wise ones who understand how any kind of chains and fetters can destroy paths to better future. For them and their country.

petofi
Guest

Someone had the good sense at TCM to put Sinatra’s ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ on tv. Amazing how prescient it appears now.

Also, in light of ‘active measures’ perhaps the Americans should revisit the McCarthy documents…of the ’50s.

wrfree
Guest

petofi..
I should get that one for the vaults.
Tonight i just may watch ‘Alice in Wonderland’.
Just to get an idea of what it’s to go down a rabbit hole. Things are all over the place. And things are not what they seem.

András B. Göllner
Guest

wrfree

“things are not what they seem” Now, that’s a great revelation ! Apologies, wrfree, it’s Monday, the first day of the rest of my life, I want to be sure, I don’t bump into my mirror 🙂

András B. Göllner
Guest

Especialy, Petőfi, because, the spiritual father of McCarhyism, Roy Cohen, is also the moving force of Donald Trump’s campaign strategy, and the idol of Arthur J. Finkelstein, Orbán’s and Trump’s strategic advisor. It’s a small world. No ?

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