CEU Pro-Rector Kontler Talks About CEU at 25 in Hungarian Weekly Figyelo

Hungarian weekly Figyelo interviewed Pro-Rector for Social Sciences and Humanities & Hungarian Affairs Laszlo Kontler on the occasion of CEU’s 25th anniversary (5.26.2016. pp.30-32. Agyelszivas helyett). The article is not available online without a subscription. The English translation of the article is below:

Instead of Brain Drain

CEU has made a global about-face in the past few years – instead of draining brains, it brings home successful Hungarian scientists, CEU’s Pro-Rector said in an interview.

As I came into the building, it seemed there were more security guards than last time I was here. Is this due to the attacks on George Soros by the government?

This is only an optical illusion, I think. We have no reason to expect any atrocities regarding this matter. CEU’s name came up in the context of which member of the government received how much financial support from the university. In my personal opinion, discussing this matter it is not particularly constructive; we can keep on discussing how ungrateful certain public figures are, however, it would be more worthwhile to mention that conspiracy theories, from a historical perspective, have always had little explanatory value and even less problem-solving value.

On the other hand they are rather virulent.    

No doubt about that. However, with regard to the afore mentioned topic, government spokesperson Zoltan Kovacs, for whom I happened to be the both the MA and PhD supervisor, stated in a fair manner that when he was a student at CEU, nobody asked about his political views, but he never hid them either. I can confirm that. He has fond memories of our university and considers it a key institution of Hungarian higher education. I’m glad there is a consensus between him and his alma mater at least in this regard. By the way, when he was a student, the now 25-year-old university was still the ambitious, but in a certain sense limited project that it was when it was started. It tried to offer courses that contributed to the formation of the intellectual-academic structure of the democratic and market-oriented transformation in the East-Central and Southeastern European region. The main aim was to help closed societies shift toward open ones.

In the region things do not seem to be shifting towards an open society at the moment.

That’s right, therefore we were also forced within the institution to reexamine what we have achieved since the beginning. In the 1990s the challenges were more obvious – in light of what exactly should we define an open society. However, since 2008-09 a trend emerged in the world in which those voices grew stronger that believed that liberal democracies should be replaced with illiberal ones, as the former is not sustainable. This is not only a regional phenomenon, and not even a European one, it’s enough to think about Donald Trump’s presidential election campaign in this regard. The answer to the question of what the alternatives for an open society are, have become more complex. But in connection with the university, it is important to emphasize that it is not a political project, it is rather a question of cultural-societal-intellectual attitude. We encourage a behavior-culture in which, independent from partiality and preconceptions, critical arguments and viewpoints are sound in terms of background as well as ethically, and in the intellectual sense legitimate and even occasionally self-critical, may clash. This is the culture of listening and paying attention, where each side demonstrates mutual respect. A consensus reached as a result is more valuable and more resistant, despite appearances, than an agreement that emerges from a closed battle, dictated from a position of power.

How were these theories taken into consideration in forming the structures of the departments?

The first important decision was that instead of creating future office-workers [bureaucrats], we wanted to establish a Western-style academic institution that offers graduate programs in the social sciences -although partly in relation to recent challenges, tighter integration has formed between the departments and the professional Business School, and the School of Public Policy was also founded. From the perspective of transition, at the beginning there were some departments that were clearly necessary - for example, political science, law, history, international relations, economics, environmental sciences and policy, or sociology, and later philosophy, gender studies or nationalism studies. Mathematics might seem the odd one out, but it would have been a pity not to use the international stature of Hungarian mathematics, the possibility to cooperate with the Alfred Renyi Institute. Maybe it is not quite clear why establishing an interdisciplinary medieval studies program was necessary to help the shift from a Soviet-type society to an open one. But if we think about how many things had happened and are happening in memory politics, memory culture since the change of regime up until this very day, it is evident that it is worthwhile straightening out the conflicting inheritances of the countries of the region.

Does this really go back that far?

If we look at on what “thousand-year old” national mythologies the 19-20th century state-building projects were founded and where they have led, it seems important to try to contribute with professional work to the formation of a healthier, more responsible, reflective historical public knowledge. 

How successful is this, in your opinion? If we look around in Hungary or the region, reflective public knowledge is not common.

The professionals we train are successful in their own fields, they are there in research and at universities. It is a different question how the results of special professions filter down to education, especially if politics represents a headwind [poses an obstacle].

To what extent has CEU remained regional?

From the beginnings of the 2000s there was a shift. It turned out that the sex appeal of Central and East European research had faded. Soviet research was not so exciting in say, 2005, as before the change of regime or during the time. Therefore, we gradually introduced - maybe it sounds boastful - a program that can be called a global shift. This, by the way, also shows in the composition of our students: today, students from about 100 countries study at CEU, out of which the number of students from East-Central and Southeastern Europe dropped to 50% from the original 90%. We do not think of the region as something interesting in itself, but rather as a prism with a unique perspective through which global problems can be tackled. The direct requirement and result of this is that we, with the region’s experiences as a starting point, should contribute on its merits to the international mainstream academic and methodological discussion.

Would you cite examples?

Each year we choose the three best doctoral dissertations from that year’s submissions. From this year my nominees are the following: One examines Moscow’s healthcare politics from the last third of the 19th century from three perspectives. One is prostitution, the second is slaughterhouses, and the third is sewage. One of the main angles of the research is to what extent they applied Western-style solutions, and how effective these were or were not, and what kind of new, local solutions were applied. The other dissertation looks at how the possibility of secure bank transfers helps modernize the economy in Ethiopia. The candidate gives an overview of the classical Western model, the lessons learned from the East European transition, and draws a conclusion from comparing these with local efforts and local circumstances. The third examines what role austerity measures plays in handling the recent financial crisis in different European countries – to what extent are these an adequate answer to the crisis. These all deal with the connections and transfers between regional and global problems. So this is one of the directions of the shift. The other is that since the beginnings of the 2000s new fields of sciences came into the limelight. CEU is small, less bureaucratic, so we can adapt to the changes of the academic environment with small and organic steps. This puts us into a special position compared to the bigger state institutions that move with more difficulty. One example of these programs is our Department of Cognitive Science, which is partly psychology, partly neurobiology, and examines the different aspects of human cognition. As such, it leads to the question of what are the conscious, mental motives of the formations of social connections. However, the latter set of problems leads to another very promising and successful new field of ours, which is network science.

Which university is the biggest competitor of CEU? I presume there is a fight for the most talented students.

This is natural but it is worth a more subtle approach. Both in market economy and higher education, competition is imagined to be some kind of an all-or-nothing game. However, this does not only work according to which university gives a stronger or weaker diploma, or maybe higher scholarships. Of course, it wouldn’t be appropriate to hide the fact that we are able to provide good scholarships. But it is important to emphasize that no university can cover a complete academic field – we at least surely cannot. Mechanisms that complement each other are at work. Our market value is that within certain areas of certain academic fields, we offer innovative and internationally competitive content. Competition is mainly about creating such unique content, while paying attention to the others, or collaborating with them. Although we are an international university, we also have several substantive, active cooperation agreements with Hungarian higher education institutions. The competition is not about stealing students from each other.

But in an interview to Figyelo, Andras Lanczi, the newly elected rector of Corvinus, challenged exactly this.

Professor Lanczi said that we offer courses to their first-year BA students to lure them to our own MA courses with the good scholarships that we offer, and count these credits for them. He probably had no chance to gather information about the details, as there is no talk of enrolling first-year MA students to CEU courses. We have an agreement with Hungarian “szakkollegiumok,” according to which, with the consent of the professor of the given course, we welcome a limited number of these special and excellent students. He also said that a scholarship at our university corresponds to that of the wage of a Hungarian associate professor. This is far from the truth.

Why, how much is a monthly scholarship at CEU?

At the MA level the full scholarship, above free tuition [stipend], is 96,000 forints, partial scholarship is 50,000. But what bothered me the most was that Rector Lanczi used the word brain drain in connection with CEU. Central European University is a Hungarian-accredited, full-fledged Hungarian university. Therefore, I do not understand how and where we would be draining brains. On top of that, more than 90% of those Hungarian students who let’s say graduate with the same MA degrees that are taught at Corvinus as well and do not carry on studying in some sort of post-doctoral education, find a job at a Hungarian company, institution or office. Thirdly, I would like to emphasize that CEU is actually draws brains back to Hungary, and also keeps them here. In the past years, we have made it possible for at least half a dozen internationally extraordinarily successful Hungarian academics to return home. They had life-long appointments at international universities. I could mention Botond Koszegi, who recently was chosen Europe’s best young economist, or Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, head of our network science program. They all returned home because CEU was able to make them an attractive offer. For the same reason, other colleagues do not search for, although could get easily, appointments abroad.

It is my conviction that if we have a competitive advantage in student recruitment, then in the eyes of those that are seriously interested, the same circumstances - i.e. the open, international, professional socialization, is worth at least as much as the good scholarships.