ELTE law department head writes open letter to Viktor Orbán

April 18, 2017

Dr. Miklós Király

In a radio interview with state radio on Sunday, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán expressed confusion over why Hungarian academics, researchers and university professors have lined up in support of Central European University (CEU) rather than rallying to demand the same rights enjoyed by the prestigious university. Orbán argued that Hungarian professors have instead “stood up so that [CEU founder] George Soros can keep his privileges.”

CEU, which faces possible closure after Orbán’s Fidesz party passed a controversial higher education law many see as targeting the university, has indeed inspired tremendous support in Hungary and abroad as tens of thousands of academics, professors, unions, organizations and foreign governments have openly criticized the law known as Lex CEU.

Professor and head of the law department at Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE) Dr Miklós Király (pictured above) wrote an open letter to Orbán on his Facebook page Monday in response to the prime minister’s Sunday interview. Király, known until recently as a staunch supporter of Orbán, was formerly an adviser to former Hungarian President, the Fidesz-nominated Ferenc Mádl.

Below is a translation of Király’s open letter:

To Prime Minister Viktor Orbán,

In your Sunday morning interview with Kossuth Rádio, you expressed your surprise at Hungarian academics, researchers and university teachers working at Hungarian higher education institutions. You wondered why they take a stand for “George Soros to keep his privileges,” instead of demanding the same rights and privileges for their own universities as enjoyed by CEU.

Please let me help you to understand this intellectual conundrum, especially as once upon a time we used to enjoy long conversations as colleagues who had received their degrees from the same institution.

First of all, I would like to emphasize that I and my fellow professors are not fighting for the privileges of George Soros. Rather, we are taking a stand to protect the valuable research and educational activities continued at CEU (Central European University), as well as to protect the interest of the students and teachers of that university.

The latest amendment of the National Higher Education law, which will at the very least dramatically alter the legal conditions under which CEU can function, has just been accepted by the Parliament, a mere week after its proposal. Questions about the constitutional nature of the proposal, raised by several leading experts of constitutional law, were not taken into consideration either by the proponent of the amendment or the Parliament. To the contrary, as a reaction to the growing voices of criticism and protest, the proposal was treated in a special, accelerated passage of legislation, and the proposed regulations were made even more stringent. This has made it sufficiently clear that the government is no longer interested in the opinion of the representatives of higher education and academic life; rather you obstinately do the very opposite of what is respectfully requested of you.

Esteemed Prime Minister! Where is the “humility” so often mentioned in your speech celebrating the 2014 election victory?

Now that the bill has been passed, the whole Hungarian university sphere feels endangered. The general opinion is that there are no longer limits, boundaries, checks and balances, just as there are no rational professional considerations, discussions, traditions or acquired rights. The quality of education matters no more. Legal security and predictability is lost. This is why we are protesting.

However, the correlations are even wider, as many things have added up to the final sum: Hungarian higher education is suffering from an ever increasing list of offenses, of which the distressingly restricted and restrictive budget constitutes only a part. These offenses include the introduction of a system of (iron)chancellors and thus the unnecessary growth of bureaucracy and bureaucratic interference in academic life at the expense of the modest financial resources of universities, coupled with the radical restriction of the powers of university presidents. Other grievances include: Creating universities out of colleges (such as the Pallas Athéné “University” in Kecskemét) which were never familiar with the spirit of academic freedom, a traditional feature of universities; Creating the National University of Public Service which functions in the military spirit of “I understood the command,” and giving this institution a privileged position of monopoly in many fields, as well as endowing it with financial resources other universities cannot even dream of. This stands in stark contrast with the dramatic decrease of state support in many essential academic fields, for example in those of legal and economic education. It is easy to find the common denominator of all these measures: this is nothing other than the direct or indirect control of academic autonomy and freedom. Many of us, with the best of intentions, have repeatedly expressed our concerns over the dangerous and illegal nature of such measures, but to no avail. We have emphasized that without the freedom of thought and without accepting a multiplicity of views and opinions, it is not possible to transmit knowledge from generation to generation and to recreate it in a meaningful way. Academic life must be free in order to be able to analyze, to doubt and to discuss various topics in any given field. This is why the Magna Charta of Universities, drawn up in 1988, declared that “universities are autonomous bodies, which create, evaluate and transmit cultural values in the academic fields of research and education. The research and educational activities of universities must be independent of any political, economic and ideological power in order to meet the demands of our age.”

I would like to remind you of another very sad fact. As of 2016, there are no more Hungarian state universities included in the 500-strong Shanghai list of elite universities. This is an obvious and painful failure. Especially as the universities of Vienna, Krakow and Prague still continue among the best higher education institutions on the same list. And now you are declaring a crusade even against CEU, a university with an international reputation of high-level education and research achievements? Would not it be more fruitful to raise the financial support of Hungarian universities with long-standing academic traditions to the level of the CEU, so that, just like CEU, they can also compete within the international arena of academics?

Finally, we must protest for the sake of all talented Hungarian students, who are forced to continue their studies abroad. These students, seeing the general decline of Hungarian higher education, prefer to continue their studies at the universities of other countries, and the majority do not return home after graduation. It would be desirable for the whole Hungarian society to keep these students at home, and it is still not too late to prevent their emigration. This could be achieved by a number of means and steps: For example, by not making CEU leave Hungary. For example, by treating higher education and research as strategic fields deserving of special attention, for the sake of the future of our country. For example, by understanding and accepting that academic activity is essentially of an international character, and so is higher education in our days. We have to realize that as members of the European Union, we have to pursue a policy that is not isolationist, but sees the complex and integrative network of cooperation between Hungarian and foreign universities as one of intrinsic value. Such a policy should support the building of international networks and simultaneously provide a financial backing that would be competitive in an international context. I am deeply sorry that so far no one has explained these to you. We, who have raised the voice of protest, would like to call your attention to the dangers of mistaken higher education decisions and politics. Seeing our criticism as the expansion of “the Soros empire” is a basically mistaken and malicious interpretation. What is more, it is a form of escapism in the face of facts and a sad reality.

I humbly request you, if you get the chance to read these sentences, please consider the arguments, and instead of first thinking of a suitably harsh response and counter-strike, attempt to re-examine, re-evaluate and reform your previous policies. After all Easter is also a time of examining our conscience. Let you remember the advice of Ferenc Deák, the “wisest man of Hungary”: “We can risk everything for our country, but the country cannot be put at risk for anything.”

With respectful greetings,
Dr. Miklós Király
University Professor
Former adviser of Hungarian President Ferenc Mádl