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Orbán’s Assault on Academic Freedom

Since his election in 2010, President Viktor Orbán of Hungary has been wreaking havoc on liberal democratic institutions and channels of political and everyday freedoms. Orbán has changed the rules of the game. Among his major assaults on democracy have been changing the original constitution to override constitutional-court decisions, introducing a new constitution, and implementing new laws that restrict free media. A major element of Orbán’s restrictions of freedom in Hungary has been his growing control over institutions of higher education. 

The Expulsion of Central European University

Hungarian-Jewish philanthropist George Soros established Central European University (CEU) in Budapest, Hungary, among other Eastern European cities, in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union. Soros imagined the university as an independent and strong center of progress in the post-Soviet rebuilding of Hungary and other countries of Eastern Europe—and that’s exactly what it became. CEU blossomed into a training center for the region’s top minds and leaders, a globally respected institution, and a key element of an open society with a growing democracy. Unfortunately, CEU’s commitment to freedom and excellency became its downfall. 

Much like other authoritarian leaders of the 20th and 21st centuries, Viktor Orbán has retaliated against institutions and organizations that allow for freedom of information, thought, and speech. As an autocrat, Orbán and his regime are threatened by the mere existence of institutions that promote free thinking.  

To be able to push CEU out of Hungary, the Hungarian government orchestrated a new law that ensured the university’s inability to survive. The law has two main prongs: requiring universities to establish or have a campus in the country it was registered and the ratification of a contract between the Hungarian government and the government of the country under which the university was registered to greenlight the operations of the university. The law includes other provisions that are likely targeted at CEU, such as forbidding Hungarian universities to run programs through non-Hungarian universities.

This aggressive legislation orchestrated by Orbán’s administration will most likely have adverse effects on the economy and prosperity. CEU was one of the most prominent universities both in Hungary and in the region, with many of its former students going on to hold key positions in the government and in civil society organizations. The university contributed over 20 million annually to the economy, not to mention that higher education is an essential part of a dynamic labor force. The expulsion of CEU and similar attacks on academic freedom are contributors to the steady brain drain that had previously begun. In the 2015 study conducted by Tárki, a polling company, showed that not only has emigration from Hungary been increasing yearly, but that 34% of émigrés were university educated. The exodus of college graduates from Hungary leaves behind a population that will have a growing divide between the percentage of high-school graduates and the percentage of college graduates.

Eliminating Opposing Ideology: Banning Gender and Women’s Studies Departments 

Orbán’s actions make it clear that his assault on academic freedom is not just about consolidating his own power; it also takes the form of a return to “traditional” values. He holds a number of ideologies seen through populist movements around the world, including opposition to immigration and the LGBT+ community and staunch support for ethnonationalism.

Part of Orbán’s assaults on academic freedom has been the banning of gender and women studies departments on college campuses. Stemming from his ideological and rhetorical commitment to traditional family values, the existence of autonomous departments that research on and teach about gender equality pose an existential threat to him. Orbán’s administration even released a statement about the move that confirmed its ideological reasoning: the Hungarian government believes people are born as men or women and is not willing to commit public funds to the discipline.

A New Playing Field for Government Oversight: The Foundation System

In a strong effort to subvert the autonomy of institutions of higher education, Orbán has created a new system that reallocates the financial and decision making power of universities. The Hungarian government recently forced universities to submit to newly created foundations that will assume ultimate authority. During the creation of these foundations, Hungary transferred billions of dollars in state assets under the guise of public funds for education. Earlier legislation allowed this by changing the legal definition of public funds that, in turn, will allow these foundations to use their billions with fewer eyes watching them. 

Of course, these changes are passed off as necessary reforms of the state’s role, but in reality, they represent a blatant power grab that will affect the autonomy and freedom of universities. The bill itself states that these foundations will be responsible for the “strengthening [of] national identity,” which aligns with Orbán’s plan for restructuring curriculum to fit his agenda. 

It is important to recognize that the ousting of CEU from Budapest is just one step in a serious campaign to hinder academic freedom and education broadly. Orbán’s attacks go beyond higher education and are targeting primary and secondary education as well. The age for completion of compulsory education has been lowered to 16, which will surely have great effects on the population, as it has already resulted in an increase in dropout rates. His regime is also altering material taught in primary and secondary schools. In an effort to bolster Orbán’s campaign of traditional values and ethnonationalism, curriculum and teaching materials have come under control of the government. Schools now promote “family values”, support anti-immigration sentiments, and glorify Orbán as an inspirational leader.

Academic Freedom as a Global Trend

Though Hungary provides an alarming picture for academic freedom in a country that is experiencing democratic backsliding, it is not an isolated phenomenon. Countries that have scaled back on democracy have also seen issues concerning academic freedom arise. A glaring example of this trend has been the United States. Though Trump was voted out of office in 2020, many of his like-minded colleagues have taken it upon themselves to attack academic freedom.

Regionally, these attacks are concentrated in the American South and some other Republican stronghold states. In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis has pushed the “Stop WOKE Act” that has become a centerpiece for worries over academic freedom. The legislation is quite broad and vague, as is much of the similar legislation around the country, but it essentially prohibits teachers across all grade levels from teaching “divisive concepts” such as Critical Race Theory and gender identity. Due to the ambiguous design of the bill, teachers and professors are being put in a very vulnerable position where they don’t know what could get them fired. The implications run deep: public schools could lose federal funding, teachers could be fired, universities will begin to self-censor, and so on. Beyond these consequences, legislation such as the “Stop WOKE Act” opens the door for further and potentially more dangerous attacks on academic freedom. 

Another front of the war on academic freedom is in Brazil, specifically under the former president, Jair Bolsonaro. Though Brazil recently ushered in President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva for the second time, political conditions and polarization over the past years has created a hostile environment for academic freedom. Divisive language coming from Bolsonaro and his administration has targeted professors and their freedom of expression as well as allowing for cuts in funding for unfounded reasons. Bolsonaro has also made attempts to alter curriculum that would favor positive narratives of Brazil’s military dictatorship and overall, strive to undermine opposition narratives. 

The conditions and limits on academic freedom in countries like Hungary, the United States, or Brazil, that have experienced democratic backsliding at various levels, paints a concerning picture for the future of academic freedom as tied with the fate of democracy. Combatting this phenomenon will take significant efforts on behalf of democratically elected leaders like Biden or Lula, as well as strong grass-roots organizing from civil society groups. However, this is not the end of the line for academic freedom.

Featured Image Source: Orbán Viktor via Facebook

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