CEU President and Rector Michael Ignatieff delivered the keynote address at the 11th commencement ceremony of the Hertie School, Berlin, on June 2.
Read the transcript below.
Thank you for the honor of addressing the Hertie graduating class. You are on the cusp: poised between student life inside these walls and your first steps into your future outside. I want to use this moment to talk to you about the relationship between the world of the university that you are leaving and the world outside that you are about to join.
I’m the President of Central European University and it is under attack. It is fighting to remain as a free institution in Budapest. Our battle has become a global cause celebre. but at CEU we know we are not the only university struggling to repel attacks from without. Across Turkey, universities are being padlocked and professors are being purged. In St. Petersburg, our sister European university struggles against one malicious attempt at closure after another.
These are the threats from without. Yet there are equally worrying threats from within.
Just this year, at Middlebury College a crowd shouted down a conservative author; in Oregon, a professor was harassed for refusing to join a protest against racism. Here in Berlin and in Dresden, professors have been bullied for conservative views or for attempting to explain the appeal of the extreme far right. It is the heart and soul of a university community to be critical, but it must also be critical of itself and of the actions of its own members. The young people responsible for these episodes confuse criticism with harassment. There is a lesson here for all of us. In the heat of righteous indignation, self-righteousness closes us all off from honest self-reflection, especially when our righteousness is couched in the language of anti-militarism, anti-sexism and anti-fascism.
Another lesson is: those who do freedom most harm are often those who benefit from it most.
So let us stand back from these controversies and let us a question that goes to first principles.
What is academic freedom?
We need to be honest. Far away from our seminar rooms, research labs and libraries, many people regard academic freedom as a privilege and a dubious one at that.
Those of us lucky enough to work in universities know how privileged we are, but there is a discomfort here. Our salaries are paid for by citizens who may have never had the chance to study with us. We need to be able to justify ourselves to them: to ensure that our doors are always open, that we communicate our research in an accessible fashion, that we do everything to remove barriers that exclude our fellow citizens from the chance to learn with us. If we have privileges—and we do—they come with responsibilities. Let us discharge them conscientiously.
Let’s deal with another privilege of ours: our security.
If you ask people on the street what academic freedom means, some will say: it means professors have a job for life and no risk of being fired. In a world of pervasive economic insecurity, the privileges of the tenured few look hard to justify.
We need to remind the public that tenure protects them too, by defending the right to pursue unpopular research and take unpopular positions. It is one of the counter-majoritarian bulwarks of a free society, like a free press or an independent judiciary. Like all privileges it can be abused, but most professors use their security of tenure to benefit learning and scholarship. We should be proud of them but also be as vigilant as we can to grant the privilege of tenure only to those who have truly earned it.
Tenure is not the only aspect of university life that is unpopular. Academic freedom is commonly regarded as license for self-appointed experts to pontificate on television, radio and the social media. As someone who has been called a ‘public intellectual’ I confess to a few occasions when I allowed myself to pontificate on issues on which I had no real competence. The moral of my story is simple: we should stick to what we know. Otherwise, we ‘experts’ can give expertise a bad name.
The popular dislike of ‘expertise’ has been exploited by politicians. It is a central element in populism: pitting ‘the people’, the honest, plain-speaking majority against the complacent and entitled minority in the universities.
We all need to stand up to any politics when it becomes an exercise in bad faith. We need to say clearly that our societies would stop functioning without the ‘expertise’ that comes from academic knowledge. Populist political leaders who win votes by despising experts on electoral platforms—we can all choose our favorite examples—are bound to find themselves fumbling for the light switch when they come into power.
But it’s not enough to defend our expertise if all the public hears is a defense of our corporate privileges as an elite.
The deeper problem is an erosion of the connection between academic freedom and the freedom of all citizens. The number of our fellow citizens who will say-- academic freedom is my freedom too--are in a minority.
If universities are going to regain the democratic support they need, It’s important for those of us ‘inside’ academic life to respond honestly to the criticism we hear from outside, instead of wincing in silent complicity when our colleagues abuse the freedoms we need to defend.
I have attended too many seminars, in some great universities, which degenerated into a closed language game that rewarded obscure referential self-congratulation over honest engagement with reality. So yes, we need to admit that some academics give academic freedom a bad name.
Equally, however, the great ones, the scholars I have revered all my life—Judith Shklar, Isaiah Berlin, Albert Hirschman, David Landes, to choose but four-- all had the gift of clarity. Their work expressed a moral obligation to the truth and a deep commitment to be clear to their fellow citizens about the problems we face together. These are our great ones, the men and women of deep learning whose use of their freedom gives luster to our own.
I have put these threats from within first, but let me now say something about the threats from without.
I will not rehearse ‘our little local difficulty” as the British call it, in Budapest. Negotiations are underway between the Governor’s office in the state of New York, where our degrees are accredited, and the government of Hungary. I want negotiations to succeed so my colleagues and I can resume the daily life of a normal academic institution. But I do want to reflect on what the episode has taught me about the relation between the freedom of universities and democratic freedom itself.
We have shrunk academic freedom to refer only to the private privileges of a corporate caste. But academic freedom also means a collective right of a community to govern itself in order to serve the wider society. Unless institutions can defend their right to govern themselves against outside forces, they cannot effectively defend the individual rights of their members within.
By outside forces, you would expect me to lay exclusive emphasis on the pressure from states. In resisting this pressure, CEU has demonstrated that that academic freedom is worth what you are prepared to pay for it. Those who do not fight for their freedom will lose it.
We have been able to do so, I should be clear, because a private endowment gives us the resources to do so.
Our endowment comes from a single philanthropist—George Soros. In the battle that we have fought to keep CEU in Budapest, Mr. Soros has respected academic freedom a good deal better than the Hungarian government.
So the academic freedom of any academic institution must mean both freedom from the state and freedom from any private interest. Neither freedom is unlimited. In relation to private interests, the university accepts a fiduciary responsibility to account for its use of resources and to use them exclusively for the purposes of teaching and research. In relation to the state, a university may challenge and dissent from the law, but it must obey it.
I come out of the battle for CEU more convinced than ever that financial independence is a critical guarantee of academic freedom. Universities that are exclusively dependent on government funding must diversify their sources of support. The foundations of academic freedom are always more secure when they rest on many pillars.
Finally, our freedom depends on the health of democratic institutions. When democracies are weak, when majoritarian populists erode checks and balances, freedom of the press and an independent judiciary, universities are especially vulnerable. That is what has happened in Hungary.
To survive, universities need to do whatever they can to strengthen the democratic institutions that protect them and they must seek and earn the solidarity of the societies they serve. It is the ultimate guarantee of their freedom.
As you graduate today, you will be a generation called upon to defend democracy from demagogues, populists, fascists perhaps, and just possibly from the most dangerous enemy of all, indifference. What you learned inside a university, I hope will help you. Democracy is, above all, the noble ideal of free communities choosing their aims for themselves, giving themselves rules by consent, and discharging obligations of protection and care to their members. Where did this ideal first take root in Europe? In the community of scholars, in the medieval universities of Bologna, Salamanca, Oxford, Cambridge, the Sorbonne, Heidelberg, and the great early modern universities of eastern Europe, the Charles University in Prague, Jagiellonian in Cracow , Eotvos Lorand in Budapest: all founded centuries ago, all still governing themselves, all the kernel of an ideal of self-rule that is the very core of the democratic faith.
You may be called on to fight for freedom, and it is worth remembering that freedom is never secure. We must battle against its enemies within, and we must battle against them without, but the outcome of any battle for freedom depends ultimately on convincing our fellow citizens that when we fight for ourselves, we are also fighting for them too.