By Masha Gessen
December 6, 2018
When Central European University, in Budapest, announced, on Monday, that it had lost its last desperate battle to remain open, I pulled up my notes from when I first visited C.E.U., almost twenty-five years ago. They made for difficult reading—not because they made me feel nostalgic, as I had expected, but because they seemed to reveal the seeds of the university’s destruction. In the end, the university that George Soros founded in order to create and advance an open society—as envisioned by Soros’s university mentor, the philosopher Karl Popper—succumbed to the enemy of open society: a nationalist bureaucracy.
Soros suggested the idea of a new university in 1988, at a conference he had convened. The topic of the conference was reëmerging nationalism in Eastern Europe, which was a concern that seemed exotic amid the general excitement about the opening up of the Soviet Bloc. By this time, Soros had been strategically funding scholarship for nearly a decade, beginning in 1979, in South Africa, and going on to China and the U.S.S.R., where he was repeatedly stymied and swindled. Still, he had devised a formula for applying his funds: a decentralized organization capable of rapid, flexible response. He envisioned a loose network of American-style graduate schools that would foster critical thinking while stemming the brain drain. It turned out, however, that universities need land, walls, chairs, and tables. Or at least they did a quarter-century ago.
C.E.U.’s first footholds were in Prague and Budapest. In both cities, the old dissidents had come to power and were personally invested in the project. It was the playwright, former political prisoner, and then President Václav Havel who invited C.E.U. to Prague. But, even while Havel was President, Václav Klaus, who became the Prime Minister in 1993, made his dislike for C.E.U. known, and Soros pulled the university out. Klaus’s career in Czech politics was marked by a steady accumulation of power and a clear rightward drift that included adopting climate-change denialism and Euroskepticism; it continued long after Havel’s had ended.
In Hungary, the old dissidents—who were, in fact, quite young at the time of the Velvet Revolutions—stayed in power for most of the nineteen-nineties. Soros, who grew up in Hungary, had begun supporting them financially years before the Communist regime collapsed. It made sense, then, that the university finally settled in Budapest.
The description of C.E.U. in my notes is not uplifting:
If there is a seedy neighborhood in Budapest, this is it. Stray dogs and a few cats roam here; many are the victims of high-speed backstreet driving—their bodies litter the dusty sides of the road in front of the CEU compound. On the outside, the campus represents the worst that Eastern European institutional architecture has to offer: mustard-colored identical boxes and landscaping that proves that in the battle of man against nature, mediocrity wins. The freshly painted offices inside look like they were furnished with a wholesale purchase from the Ikea store that has recently opened nearby. The furniture is Western, but the uniformity is universally Eastern Bloc.
I went to C.E.U. in early 1994, as the university’s first rector was being installed. He was Alfred Stepan, a political scientist who came to Budapest from Columbia University. C.E.U. had been in existence for about three years, run by the dissident Hungarian historian Istvan Rev. Now Rev was running in and out of Stepan’s office with updates on fraught negotiations with the Hungarian education ministry regarding the use of the word “university.” C.E.U. had no accreditation at the time. That particular battle ended with an extension: the ministry allowed C.E.U. to call itself a university for a few months longer, pending further review.
The conflict over the use of the word “university” exposed a deeper problem: even the support of the new national government couldn’t protect C.E.U. from the bureaucracy. And so the bureaucracy itself came into focus: How much of it had been carried over, unchanged, from the Soviet era? The Velvet Revolutions had been peaceful—the Communists had simply walked away from the institutions of the state, handing them over to the dissidents. But this meant that the institutions themselves remained largely intact. So had there actually been a revolution?
Similar questions haunted the university itself. Its express goal was to educate a new élite. But, to gain acceptance to C.E.U., young people had to have completed an undergraduate degree and have a good command of English. This meant that a disproportionate number of recruits were the children of the old Communist élite, who had had access to the best educational opportunities. C.E.U. staff and recruiters whom I interviewed for my story were reluctant to discuss this structural problem; they seemed to hope it would just go away.
For their part, students from Eastern Europe didn’t want to discuss much of anything, in class or in interviews. I sat through an excruciating class that was supposed to be an American-style seminar but was, in fact, a lecture read aloud from a prepared text by a Czech medievalist, in heavily accented but grammatically impeccable English. While she read, students wrote letters to their mothers (one Russian student filled four pages), passed notes to one another, circulated a book on psychoanalysis, and read in their native languages. When I asked for their opinions, also by passing a note, I got bland responses such as “It’s interesting to see and hear all discuss in one place, arguing and discussing about problems of medieval history, art, etc., etc. I’m satisfied with professors here.” Administrators nodded when I talked to them about this: they found it impossible to get feedback out of students who had got as far as they had by being deferential to authority. For the same reason, student evaluations, which had seemed like a revolutionary novelty, had fallen flat.