On December 3, Central European University (CEU) officially declared that it would move would move its U.S. degree programs from Budapest, Hungary to Vienna, Austria due to increasing pressure from the Hungarian government and tightening restrictions on accreditation. Pressure on CEU stems from its affiliation with its founder, George Soros, a billionaire financier and philanthropist who escaped from Hungary during World War II.
I wanted to “dig deeper” to learn about CEU and its role as a higher education institution in Central Europe, while also discovering how philanthropy has played a role in its founding and current state. I enlisted the help of Hungarian Kinga Horvath, a visiting research associate at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy who is also a master’s degree graduate. She directed me to Adrienn Nyircsák, a current Ph.D. candidate in political science with a focus on higher education policy at CEU, who has also completed a master’s degree in public policy at the university. As an academic and an “on-the-ground source,” Nyircsák discussed the impact of CEU’s move on students and faculty, as well as CEU’s own philanthropic vision and the influence of George Soros.
Can you tell me a little bit about you and your background?
Adrienn Nyircsák (AN): Yes. I’m a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate at CEU. I have a bachelor’s degree in international relations with a specific focus on European Union integration and a master’s degree from CEU in public policy. I’ve completed the classroom courses and data collection necessary for my Ph.D., and am now writing my dissertation.
I will also be starting a new job working in European higher education policy in December.
What made you choose CEU for your master’s and Ph.D.?
AN: From what I knew, CEU was the best social science university in the country. I really wanted to experience the small classroom style of education and the world-class professors there.
Public policy appealed to me because it combined practice with theory and offered a range of specializations in different policy areas. Higher education policy is a very unique specialization that CEU offers that many other graduate institutions do not.
Will CEU’s move from Budapest to Vienna affect you?
AN: No. Since I have completed my courses and my data collection, I will not be affected.
Who will it impact on CEU’s campus, and how will it impact them?
AN: The change in location will impact people who have to be there to take classes. However, current students (those who have already matriculated) are guaranteed that they will be able to finish their programs in Budapest.
However, it will cause issues for the faculty and staff of the university. Many of the faculty are foreign-born; however, many have lived in Hungary for many years, started families there, and consider it their home.
It will also impact staff members who have worked there for any number of years.
Finally, you have to consider not only the students, faculty, and staff at CEU, but the entire Hungarian academic community. CEU has a library that is the largest English-language social science library in Central Europe. People from other universities in Hungary regularly come to the library to utilize resources that they don’t have access to in their own universities.
CEU also acts as a regional hub for research in several disciplines. There are many research partnerships between it and other Hungarian institutions.
Can you talk about George Soros’s philanthropy and the impact that has on CEU?
AN: George Soros founded CEU for the purposes of training scholars. He wanted to create an institution that would bring knowledge and expertise to this region, instead of people leaving to study in the United States or United Kingdom.
In addition, he went in with the mindset that individuals who received this educational knowledge and training would use it to work for and improve the public and private sectors in their region and home countries. In other words, he wanted to fight against “brain drain.”
However, we must separate George Soros’s philanthropy with the ideals and goals of CEU as an institution. Although there are some links between the two, CEU is an independent institution in that it decides on its own funding structure, scholarship schemes, and degree programs that it offers. While Soros has his priorities, he is only one of 20 board members. Above all, CEU is a university based on scientific merit, and not a philanthropic organization or a private project of its founder.
However, it is a university that is very sensitive to the issues of the region through scholarship and community engagement.
So CEU has its own models for philanthropy and engagement. Can you expand on that?
AN: Of course. So CEU has continually looked for ways to connect with the local community. One of the main programs that has always existed at CEU is the Roma Graduate Preparation Program. While it was initially set up by George Soros, it has been integrated within CEU. Roma students can apply for this program, where they are prepared through education to enter and succeed in one of CEU’s or other world-class universities’ master’s level programs. When applying to CEU’s master’s programs, they do go through the same application cycle as any other applicant, so there’s a balance between positive action in the community and meritocracy.
That is a very important program. The Roma communities in Hungary have lived in social and economic segregation for many years. CEU seeks to educate these individuals because of the poverty and discrimination they face.
CEU also has a program for registered asylum seekers and refugees in Hungary. Even though nonprofits focused on helping asylum seekers and refugees in Hungary are facing fines and imprisonment in some cases, CEU tries to find ways to continue the educational programs for these people.
The university is definitely an institution that is always trying to evolve or adapt to changing reality. Why it’s been influenced by the founder and his personal priorities and social investment in the region, CEU has developed its own view and vision of philanthropy.
In what other ways does the university engage in philanthropy?
AN: The majority of students receive financial aid or a scholarship of some kind. These awards enable people from regions the ability to earn an American degree that they could not otherwise pay for. In addition, higher education in this region is, for the most part, accessible or free. CEU wants to train future leaders of the region, and we know that to do that, students must be able to afford the education.
When we talk about scholarships, we must talk about alumni as well. CEU alumni are very active and involved after graduation, which is something not common in the Hungarian higher education system. There is an alumni scholarship that enables students with financial need to attend CEU. It also recognizes students who are leaders in the own communities. The university also hosts a “Philanthropy Week” every year.
These programs and initiatives show the true characteristics of CEU and its ideals – giving back to the community.
Returning to CEU’s impending move, you touched on the impact of it on students and faculty before. How will it affect Hungarian society?
AN: The whole higher education system in Hungary is being redesigned, in a way. There are a lot of uncertainties. However, we’ve been seeing restrictions on the content of education. For example, it’s no longer possible for gender studies master’s degree programs to be accredited because they are considered “ideological.”
Political scientists posit that it’s the figure of Soros, the founder, as to why this small university is being persecuted. Even though there’s a difference between Soros’s aims and CEU’s goals, many believe the organization is under attack because of its link with its founder.
However, CEU’s story is not a standalone or an exception. It is a part of the result of policy decisions that have accumulated in Hungary in the past. We have seen in the current political discourse and in the media that these are systematic attempts to discredit certain branches of the social sciences.
With CEU being forced to leave, there will be even more room for the government to further restrict activities, research, and education.
The media is focusing on how the move will impact CEU, but I view it more as a loss for those who are left.
Learn more about CEU’s conflict with the Hungarian government
The views in this article are the personal opinions of the interviewee, and do not reflect the official views of her current employer, Central European University, or the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.