BUDAPEST, Hungary – Central European University said Thursday it will move its U.S.-accredited programs from Hungary’s capital of Budapest to the Austrian capital of Vienna because of uncertainty over its academic freedom.
The university, which was founded in 1991 by Hungarian-American billionaire and philanthropist George Soros, has said for months that it has complied with a host of new requirements for it to remain in Budapest. But the university says it has been kept in “legal limbo” by Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government, which has refused to sign an agreement needed for CEU to remain in Hungary.
The university’s fate is seen as collateral damage from the fiercely anti-immigrant Orban’s opposition to Soros and his “Open Society” democratic ideals. Orban’s government has conducted massive billboard and media campaigns against Soros, blaming him for Europe’s migrant crisis, a charge that Soros denies.
The pro-democracy philanthropist has also been criticized by U.S. President Donald Trump and vilified by right-wing conspiracy theorists. On Monday, a bomb was found in a mailbox at Soros’ suburban New York home.
Changes to Hungary’s higher education law in 2017 were seen as mainly targeting CEU, which is chartered in New York State but did not conduct educational activities there, one of the new requirements. CEU has since established educational programs with New York’s Bard College, its partner institution.
“Nonetheless, the Hungarian authorities have indicated that they would not sign the New York State agreement,” the university said Thursday in a statement. “All attempts to find a solution that would enable CEU to remain as a U.S. degree-granting institution in Budapest have failed.”
Incoming students in CEU’s masters and doctoral programs will start studying at the Vienna campus in the 2019-2020 academic year, while students already enrolled may remain in Budapest to complete their degrees.
The institution’s board of trustees authorized the move as of Dec. 1, 2018, which CEU President and Rector Michael Ignatieff meant there’s still time to reach a last-minute deal.
“Even at this late hour, we are still seeking a solution that allows us to remain in Budapest as a free institution,” Ignatieff told reporters.
David Cornstein, the U.S. Ambassador to Hungary, has been talking with the Hungarian government to try to finalize the agreement and made CEU the destination of one of his first official visits after arriving in Hungary this summer.
Orban’s enmity toward Soros comes even after he himself received a scholarship from Soros in the late 1980s. Orban’s Fidesz party also received aid from Soros’ foundations a couple of years before the end of communism in Hungary in 1990.