Daniel Monterescu's Piece on CEU in the Journal of the European Association for Social Anthropology

January 13, 2020

An important forum titled ’On Politics and Precarity in Academia’ was published at the end of December by the flagship journal of the European Association for Social Anthropology (Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale). It included contributions from 22 scholars including a piece on CEU by Daniel Monterescu, Associate Professor of Urban Anthropology at CEU’s Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology. 

We are publishing Monterescu’s piece below, and you can read the entire publication here.

The university as public enemy: CEU, institutional precarity and academic solidarity

Some institutions come to embody the spirit of our time more than others. When this happens to a university it becomes a key metaphor for the troubled history of academic freedom and the uncertain future of liberal education. Central European University (CEU) represents such a paradox: the brainchild of a global philanthropist, hedge fund manager and financial speculator, it has become a cause célèbre of democratic values under threat. However, the heritage of this university is intrinsically linked to the logic of global and post‐socialist capitalism. It is a case of an American private university facing a specific form of (temporary) institutional precarity surrounded by poorly funded public universities trapped in a state of structural precarity.

The story of CEU is replete with historical irony, undesired repetitions and forced displacements. It was often seen by other universities as an enfant terrible, privileged and audacious, not without a hint of chutzpah. However, it did take a real leading role in the formation of a new academic elite in the region. CEU was never a radical institution. It became one in response to external pressure, which triggered its faculty and students to speak truth to power.

For almost three decades it remained virtually unknown outside the region, until the recent assault by Viktor Orbán. Paradoxically, it was the 2017 introduction of new regulations for ‘foreign‐operating universities’ that brought CEU to the attention of the global academic community. The parochial and often anti‐Semitic defamation of the ‘Soros University’ galvanised unprecedented support from the European Parliament, Nobel Prize Laureates, Rectors, intellectuals and activists worldwide.

CEU was targeted because it encapsulates a series of images that Hungarian political populism deemed intolerable: dissent, social critique, cosmopolitan border crossing, and its association with a Jewish entrepreneur who was seen as no less than the Judas of Orbán's regime. From its inception, the Sociology and Social Anthropology Department endorsed a critical stance regarding major global processes on multiple scales. Much of the research of our students and faculty takes on uneven development, gentrification and urban displacement, racism and Islamophobia, anti‐refugee and anti‐Roma discourses, right‐wing populism and the financialisation of capitalism, to name but a few. These areas are reflected in the curriculum of many departments at CEU. The consequences of the current witch‐hunt are acutely concrete. The Open Learning Initiative for refugees and asylum seekers (OLIve) has been temporarily suspended as of August 2018 in response to Hungarian legislation in respect of refugees and immigration. The Gender Studies Department is facing ongoing political attacks. The Open Society Foundation was forced to relocate to Berlin. Next year, CEU will follow suit out of Hungary.

But other universities had it worse. In Hungary, gender studies programmes have been outlawed; in Russia, the European University at St Petersburg lost its accreditation following a governmental ‘audit’ and in Palestine students are denied free access to universities under Israeli Occupation. Economic precarity and political precarity are closely linked and to fight both we must first show solidarity with fellow victims of authoritarianism and act on it.