Liberal arts and legalese: the CEU affair continues

(Non-native English version of Liberaaleja taiteita ja jurismia.)

The scandal around the Central European University in Budapest, or the “Soros university”, as the common man calls this international elite institution, continues. As I wrote in my latest posting, Hungary is making it impossible for the CEU to operate, by way of a law amendment whose motives the government doesn’t bother to conceal: this is an attack against György Soros’s foundation and its activities in support of an open society.

An international solidarity campaign is already going on, there is a Facebook page and a petition, and many university institutes and other institutions up to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences have declared solidarity with the CEU. The US State Department has also expressed its concern. Only the nationwide umbrella organization of the student representations, HÖOK, will not support the CEU. On the contrary, its leader Tibor Gulyás states something confused about how the actions of the government are timely indeed, because the regulation and funding of foreign universities needs to be investigated. (As the HVG notes in its news piece, Gulyás has earlier worked with the research centre called Új Nemzedék (New Generation) which was run on EU money and made it to the headlines after the receipts on the use of said EU funds had mysteriously disappeared – as explained, they had been destroyed by a water pipe leak in the office of the centre. Police investigations – surprise! – have been stopped.)

Amidst this scandal, friends of translation errors have had their cheap laughs. Minister János Lázár at the government press conference yesterday stated that what is going on now is simply a whipping up of general hysteria. Because, as you see, this is only about whether foreign universities operating in Hungary conform to the Hungarian law and regulations, this is certainly not an ideological persecution of any kind. Namely: among the numerous foreign and international institutions investigated now, only the McDaniel College, which “calls itself liberal”, fulfils the requirements and its operations do not warrant any counter-measures. According to the news site, Lázár said:

“I think that if the government had problems with anybody, it would never let a symbolically liberal [?!] university operate in peace.”

Wow! Now, of course, “liberal” in the language of Hungary’s current rulers is a general invective comparable to “fascist” in the Soviet Union or even in today’s Russia. But the only thing that makes the McDaniel College “liberal” is the fact that its programmes include so-called “liberal arts”. This, in turn, has nothing to do with political liberalism, whatever one understands by that. The artes liberales have since antiquity comprised those skills which a free citizen needs but which are not directly connected to any profession: languages, rhetorics and other “civilizing” skills at large. In today’s English-speaking world, liberal arts can include diverse combinations of humanities and social sciences, sometimes even science. But how can we expect János Lázár to know this? In the Facebook group of Hungarian collectors of translation errors, somebody is already speculating with the Hungarian government’s future attacks against the bookshop chain called “Libri”, “Libero” baby diapers or perhaps even the state of Liberia.

The law amendment proposal was supposed to be discussed in the parliament on Wednesday, but the news site claims to have been informed (by sources close to the ministry) that the issue will be taken up to discussion by an exception procedure already on Monday. Knowing that the Fidesz party has the majority in the parliament, the question might be practically settled already, unless a miracle happens and President János Áder, so far a loyal soldier of the Fidesz party, for some strange reason refuses to sign.

And, since today is Friday, the day on which Prime Minister Orbán gives his so-called radio interviews, the people have also been informed of why this “Lex CEU” is so important now. This is how the website of the Hungarian radio reports (the same homepage also gives an audio link to the interview, for those to whom the hollow sound of Orbán’s voice doesn’t give the creeps):

Hungary is a country which supports knowledge but will not tolerate cheating, Viktor Orbán emphasized in connection with the CEU. Cheating is cheating, no matter who does it. Now an investigation has been conducted and it has shown that numerous universities are operating in breach of regulations, including the university of György Soros, the Prime Minister said.

A Hungarian university operating in Hungary will grant a diploma, but there is a university which grants two of them: one which applies in Hungary, and one which applies in America. This is not fair to other universities in Hungary, Viktor Orbán described the background of the investigation.

To the question whether the Central European University will operate in the future, Viktor Orbán answered: this depends on negotiations and agreements between America and Hungary.

So that’s it. In quite a few comments I have seen on this, the frightened statement recurs: Viktor Orbán is obviously moving away from the real world towards his own reality at a frightening speed. The word “cheating” (csalás) has been used both on the news site a few days ago and by numerous government mouthpieces since then. But still, it is difficult for an ordinary university person like myself to understand what in this case constitutes ”cheating” or ”fraud”. Universities run their grade programmes and grant diplomas to their students. “Fraud” in this context can only mean that the teaching is not competent, does not correspond to the requirements of the discipline or the appropriate quality criteria. And this is for national and international accreditation organs to decide, by the professional and ethical criteria of each discipline. If a university wants to grant diplomas in the United States, in Hungary or in Indonesia, its teaching must correspond to the official requirements of the U.S., Hungarian, or Indonesian accreditation organs, respectively. (CEU has accreditation for its programmes in both USA and Hungary.) Experts decide, politicians are not supposed to get involved with issues of content. Simple enough, or that’s how one would think.

This Friday morning speech included some other exciting things as well, also triggering shocked reactions in Hungarian opposition media. Namely: Orbán believes that the European Human Rights Court at Strasbourg is in need of a “reform”, because it, in its present state, enables the operation of “immigration business”. As an example, Orbán mentioned the recent case of two Bangla Deshi asylum applicants. The court at Strasbourg had decided that Hungary should not have detained the men, and Hungary was sentenced, among other things, to pay the costs of the court process to the organization which had represented the two men. In Orbán’s interpretation, this means that the said organization – oh, those villainous human rights NGOs! – had “made profit at our expense”. Accordingly, it is “making business out of immigration”, and somebody should put an end to this.

Just a moment. It should be the usual practice that who loses the court process will pay the costs. This is not “business”, this is simply the normal Western court practice. Now Orbán has studied law – but in his present function, he is not a lawyer but, above all, a reckless populist.

Let’s get back to the CEU. The case has emanated inspiration and ideas to an unexpected direction. The former scandal-ridden Prime Minister of Romania, Victor Ponta, still a member of the parliament, has enthusiastically announced that he will formulate and submit a similar law proposal which will tighten the conditions for foreign universities operating in Romania. Now, interestingly, Orbán’s Hungary has so far been very actively involved in the cultural and political life of the Hungarian minority in Romania, and these activities have included the funding of two Hungarian-language private universities, the Sapientia university in Transylvania and the Christian University of Partium in Nagyvárad/Oradea in Northwestern Romania, close to the Hungarian border. Neither of these is based on any kind of an agreement between Romania and Hungary.





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