The Central European University (CEU) in Budapest may not have the venerable bricks and mortar of Leiden: it was established only 25 years ago. But it shares its DNA with us. CEU was created at the end of the Cold War to raise a new generation of scholars; a new generation that was needed to rebuild society after decades of communist oppression; a new generation with a commitment to democracy and the rule of law. CEU is a genuine praesidium libertatis, alive and kicking in the heart of Europe. It is a truly international university, with a faculty from all corners of the world and students from over 100 countries. CEU is highly successful. It has raised scores of young scholars, some 14,000 to date. Many continued their academic career in Leiden. Anyone who has visited the place will acknowledge how vibrant it is, with a continuous flow of high-profile guest lectures and academic events.
But now all this is under threat. The Hungarian government has announced measures that would make it impossible for CEU to continue operations within the country. A series of amendments to the National Higher Education Law have been tabled, amendments which at first sight appear neutral but in reality affect only one university: CEU. CEU would no longer be able to combine its current Hungarian accreditation with its status as an accredited American university. It would be required to open a campus in the USA if it wanted to continue its activities in Hungary. The authorities would be allowed to vet non-EU faculty. As the President of Princeton – one of many scholars to express solidarity with CEU – wrote: "No one should be deceived: the legislation is an unconscionable attack upon academic freedom, and all friends of free speech and civil society should recognize and oppose it as such."
Of course, the problems that CEU is now facing do not exist in isolation. In Hungary, the government of Mr. Orbán is engaged in a systematic attack on the independence of the judiciary, the freedom of the media and the position of civil society. It is now turning its attention to academia. It is no coincidence that in doing so, the self-proclaimed ‘illiberal democracy’ of Mr. Orbán targets CEU first, with its international character and commitment to the values of open society. But it is no surprise either that other Hungarian universities are protesting: “It’s in the interest of all universities operating in Hungary that the legal environment respects the diversity of institutions and provides equal conditions to all of them,” a rector said.
Here in Leiden, especially here in Leiden, we cannot afford to look away.
There is a strange twist of fate in the fact that the current Rector and President of CEU, Michael Ignatieff, was Cleveringa Professor at Leiden University in 2013. The Canadian academic, at the time professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, was one of a series of internationally renowned scholars who have been appointed to a one-year professorship to commemorate the former dean of Leiden Law School, Professor Cleveringa. No need to recall here that during World War II, on 26 November 1940, Dean Cleveringa held a famous speech against the dismissal of his Jewish colleague, E.M. Meijers, Professor of Private Law. Dean Cleveringa’s protest triggered a strike among the students, which prompted the Nazis to close Leiden University.
In line with the Leiden tradition, Michael Ignatieff delivered a special ‘Cleveringa lecture’ on 26 November 2013. Under the title "Civil Courage and the Moral Imagination", Ignatieff paid tribute to the courage that Cleveringa had displayed by speaking out for his colleague. Why did Cleveringa do this?, Ignatieff asked: "It would have been adaptive for him to stay silent, prudent to keep his head down, sensible to avoid confronting the issue. He acted against prudence and self-interest, and even against his own survival." Why? In trying to understand how such a singular act of courage became possible, Ignatieff pointed out that Cleveringa had to face questions of loyalty and belonging. Should he think of himself as a Gentile and Meijers as a Jew? Or should he think of them both as Dutchmen, members of the university and fellow scholars of law? The key issue, Ignatieff argued, was not simply what Cleveringa owed Meijers as a person, but what he owed his institution at large: the university, the community of colleagues and friends to which both belonged and which had shaped their identities. The issue at stake went beyond compassion to the very idea of justice that his institution and his country should live by.
When Michael Ignatieff spoke in Leiden in 2013, no-one could predict the kind of situation he would find himself in only a few years later. But his Cleveringa lecture should still guide us today. With all the obvious differences between the circumstances in which Cleveringa delivered his speech and the world today, we must acknowledge that the issues at stake in Hungary go to the core of academic freedom in Europe. It is eerie to re-read Ignatieff’s final words in Leiden:
“There are lessons we can draw from the courage displayed here one November night in 1940. We must strengthen institutions so that we accept a common obligation to stand up for each other, extend citizenship so all shelter under equal rights; be unbending in ensuring that the rule of law applies to all; and we must have the imagination to understand that fascism is never securely in the past. Indeed, terror can be incubated in democracy. We should fight constantly against the besetting sin of democratic politics: demagogues who trade on prejudice and fear and seek to rally ‘us’ against a supposed ‘them’."
Let’s speak out for CEU. We must affirm: they are part of us. There is no them.