Soros-funded university, government clash over law
School accused of interference in politics
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY | Lawmakers from Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party on Tuesday approved an education bill that critics say targets a university founded by billionaire American philanthropist George Soros.
The conservative, nationalist government contends the Soros-funded school is improperly interfering in the country’s politics, but Tuesday’s move prompted thousands to protest outside the Central European University’s campus in Budapest and drew swift criticism from the top U.S. diplomat in Hungary’s capital.
The bill modifies rules regulating the 28 foreign universities in Hungary. CEU officials warn that parts of the bill could force it to close.
The legislation would require the governments of the United States and Hungary to agree on new terms for the university’s operations within the next few months. If a deal doesn’t materialize, CEU would be banned from enrolling new students after Jan. 1 and would have to conclude its educational activities by 2021.
“The United States is disappointed by the accelerated passage of legislation targeting Central European University,” David Kostelancik, the charge d’affaires at the U.S. embassy, said in a statement. “The United States will continue to advocate for its independence and unhindered operation in Hungary.”
CEU Rector Michael Ignatieff met Tuesday in Washington with Undersecretary of State Tom Shannon. Mr. Ignatieff said the institution would appeal to Hungarian President Janos Ader to review the legislation, which it considers to be a violation of Hungary’s constitution
“We want to remain in Budapest,” Mr. Ignatieff said. “We’ve done nothing wrong.”
Mr. Orban, a former Soros scholarship recipient, has been increasingly critical of the Hungarian-born Mr. Soros, accusing him of trying to influence Hungarian politics. The prime minister said last week that CEU was cheating because it did not have a campus in the United States, but issued diplomas recognized both in Hungary and the U.S. CEU is accredited in New York state but does not have a U.S. campus.
Despite protests from the State Department, Mr. Orban insists that the future of the Soros-funded institution should be negotiated with the Trump administration. Mr. Soros, who made billions as an investor, has long been a major funder of liberal and Democratic causes and gave millions of dollars to Hillary Clinton’s campaign last year.
Mr. Orban, who wants to turn Hungary into an “illiberal state” while promoting Hungarian nationalism, appears to be trying to ally himself with Mr. Trump against Mr. Soros.
However, Washington is not considering negotiating over the university because it doesn’t consider it to be a bilateral issue between the U.S. and Hungary, said a U.S. official on background.
Hundreds of academics and universities have expressed support for CEU, founded in 1991. It currently enrolls 1,400 students from 108 countries.
“This law is practically a witch-hunt against CEU, freedom of education and against independent, autonomous and critical thinking,” said Bernadett Szel, a lawmaker from the Hungarian opposition party Politics Can Be Different.