Liberty, diversity, autonomy

It isn’t particularly difficult or far-fetched to see the parallels between the government’s respective efforts at shutting down CEU, squeezing NGOs, and eliminating press freedom. Universities, NGOs and free media embody everything that Fidesz hates and fears. By Gábor Polyák

 A few weeks ago one of my students asked me if the universities would continue to be free and whether we’d still be able to talk about anything there. It was a Media and Politics course, if I recall correctly, and our topic that day was Hungarian political culture. I won’t pretend that at that point we did not temporarily diverge from the narrow scientific approach; it’s not easy teaching media studies these days. And the student had asked a difficult question. Before this question came up, we had in all probability discussed the sins of regime transition, and we had probably also touched on the prime minister’s friend-turned enemy, the media mogul and oligarch Lajos Simicska, as well as Orbán’s new favourite media adviser, Árpád Habony. These issues have a habit of creeping in. There were five of us in the room, four open-minded and active students and myself. We had excellent discussions in a great atmosphere. What’s freedom, if not this very scenario? Yes, in the closed confines of the university one can speak freely; one can listen to the opinions of others; one can debate; and though one is definitely not compelled to do so, one can even agree with others.

I’ve never experienced any disadvantage – neither in my capacity as a university teacher nor as the representative of an NGO – because I share my opinion on Facebook, during interviews and at events. Even in the worst-case scenario, they are used to the fact that I’m this loud, outspoken type of person. Indeed, a university is the space where scientific thinking and worldviews are given free rein, it’s the space of rational debate and great insights. That is one answer to the student’s question.

Yet there is another answer, too. It’s that Hungarian higher education as an institutional structure has long lost its autonomy. At every step on the way it opted for adaptation rather than resistance. If it received less state funding, then it bought less printing paper, scrapped the library upgrades, revoked travel grants, failed to refill the soap and paper towel dispensers in the washrooms, turned down the heating, merged departments and, if absolutely unavoidable, it laid off colleagues. Obviously, it did so at the expense of the quality of research and teaching. But the worst aspect without a doubt is that it learned to ajtón állni, to seek and accept the graces of those in power, and to be so immeasurably grateful for each morsel ultimately thrown its way. The unpredictability in its funding compels every institution to cut individual deals and to compromise itself.

Then came the new chancellery system, where the government practically imposed overseers at each university, thereby openly depriving institutions of higher education of their financial autonomy.”Financial autonomy” is of course self-deception in any case, because how could one decide autonomously about the use of educational and research capacities when there is actually no money. Since the competencies of chancellors are not clearly circumscribed, there are typically continuous conflicts between the university presidents and the chancellors. Parallel structures have emerged, obviously in the interest of improved financial management and higher savings. Yet, this, too, had not been decided without involving the universities. The university senates gave the government’s plan a smooth ride. I was there, I saw it – mine was the only vote against. Another university senate unanimously elected the governing party’s chief ideologue as the university’s president, and a candidate who had applied to be dean was unanimously rejected by colleagues when the minister let it be known through the university president that he does not agree with the appointment of that person.

Piece by piece, the universities have given up their autonomy since 2010, they have gradually come to terms with the cutbacks and the humiliations. In the meanwhile, there is some bargaining going on in the background, and then there is an argument to legitimise all this: at least we survive. As a part of this system, how could I be mad at someone who has managed to secure my next annual salary?

But why did it never occur to them to join forces and show some strength? We, the universities, are the future of this nation. Politicians come and go, but the country will only advance if its universities function properly. This is a rather weighty argument against any politician. And since our autonomy, as universities and academic citizens, is not only a mere formality but our actual mindset – we’re autonomous in mind and spirit, we are free and autonomous – we will not tolerate the abject humiliation that some delusional political busybodies in society want to subject us to. If we had reacted forcefully the first time when we experienced the ravings of politics then the whole country would face better prospects for the future.

In other words, the other response to my student’s question must be that universities are not free, they are not free at all. And that this owes to a significant extent to their own failures.

The CEU issue was of course not even on the table at the time when this question came up. Whatever the outcome of this case, the attack on CEU has made it clear that Fidesz can completely crush the entire system of higher education any time it chooses. It has no interest in globally recognised, state of the art knowledge; independent opinion-formation and critical thinking are downright discouraged; and even the benefits that CEU brings to Hungary – including some that are readily measured in money  – are also unimportant. In reality, Fidesz detests autonomy, and diversity even more so. It loathes the two values that CEU –  and, under more fortuitous circumstances, higher education in general – stands for. There may or may not be Russian interests behind the intended closing of CEU, but regardless: the average Fideszista would gleefully raze the university to the ground. They can’t keep CEU on a leash and humiliate it in the same way that they do with state universities, so they need something far more brutal.

Soros only serves as an alibi in all this. He is just another one of the Fidesz-created demons, an untouchable and invisible enemy to whip up the passions of the governing party’s supporters. Fidesz’s communication could not exist without such demons. The heroic struggle against these demons is needed to legitimate all flawed and sordid government acts. And Soros is an ideal demon because he represents everything that Fidesz loathes, what makes it uncomfortable and fearful. But ultimately it’s just a label that can be attached to anything they see fit. That is why it’s a grave mistake – and an impermissible simplification – for Spiegel or Guardian to refer to CEU as the “Soros university”.

CEU is to Hungarian higher education what Népszabadság was to the freedom of the press. A red line that we all thought the government could not and would not ever cross. We were wrong.

Another reason why this is an apt analogy is because it is equally hard to answer the question whether press freedom prevails in Hungary as the one asking whether universities are free. There are free journalists and free media outlets, and it’s not even rare for them to uncover governmental scandals. But press freedom is more than that. It’s a system whereby all viewpoints have the same chance to reach the audience and each media outlet has the same chance to compete in the market for advertisements, to buy distribution capacities and to access government information. If on the whole the media operate under these conditions, then there is a chance that the public will have access to decent information. Then there is a chance that public debates will reflect social diversity and that citizens will be autonomous in making their political choices.

Liberty, diversity, autonomy – the same invectives that have led to CEU’s downfall.

And the same that will also cause the downfall of Hungarian civil society. Hungarian NGOs were never willing to forego their autonomy.  They are the very embodiment of diversity, they cannot exist but for the free will of their members. Yes, some of them – Mérték among them – do take political stances. They present the public with views that differ from those of the government, and in fact from those of all political parties. They wish to offer more nuance, to bolster citizens’ decision-making autonomy, to render social dialogue more diverse. Yes, some NGOs – Mérték among them – receive money from abroad, some from Soros-affiliated foundations. Because they could not credibly represent their own viewpoints if they were funded by the government; because they would lose their autonomy if they were supported by a political party; because there are hardly any grants that can be won in Hungary by way of open competition; and also because they cannot all hope that this community, which is near the end of its strength, funds their work, too.

Fidesz wants to break you, to humiliate you, and it wants you not to even realise what is going on, to accept what it offers you as an expression of its magnanimity, to make sure that you’re grateful and dependent on it. If you choose to accept it, you will be allowed to build a career, to have a house, maybe even to be satisfied with your lot. Liberty, diversity, autonomy– that’s all Fidesz wants in return.

EJO article