“Fighting on the Front Lines for CEU was a Privilege”

With CEU moving ahead to a new chapter in its nearly-30-year history, outgoing Pro-Rector for Social Sciences and Humanities Eva Fodor and Pro-Rector for Hungarian Affairs Zsolt Enyedi recall some of the most memorable events from the past few years, review their favorite personal moments, and reveal their plans for the future.

During your tenures as pro-rector, you faced the greatest challenges that CEU has ever encountered in its history. How did you negotiate this as leaders and are some of ayour takeaways?

Zsolt: My interactions with government officials were ultimately very frustrating, but I did experience a wide range of attitudes: genuine sympathy, backstabbing, beliefs in crazy conspiracy theories, cynicism, bewilderment, etc. I learned in practice what I knew in theory: that everything depends on one person in this country, in the sense that if the prime minister decides a matter, then the opinion of his close colleagues, professional authorities, international partners or people on the street will matter little. And I also realized that politicians in the democratic world lack the tools and the intellectual depth to deal with such a situation.

Eva: The political attacks came as a surprise—I was completely unprepared for the need to engage in an international political struggle as a part of this role. But there was no time to contemplate this or even the fact that I had had no idea how politics was “done” at the national or international level - not to mention the more mundane issues of how to give interviews, what to do at an international press conference, how to dress for evening talk shows, or what lobbying senators in Washington, D.C. might mean. I was also unprepared for the relentless regularity with which I was exposed to the support but also the occasional wrath of the CEU community.

Looking back, it was a privilege to be able to participate in this fight from the front lines and to do so with colleagues I enjoyed working with. For the sociologist in me, this was a unique opportunity to study up close the everyday practice and minute details of the operations of authoritarian governance. It was participatory observation at its most intense. I should have taken regular field notes.

What are some of the highlights from the previous years that you are most proud of?

Zsolt: The memory of the pro-CEU demonstrations ranks at number one. But the Borderless Knowledge series, the accreditation of the many Hungarian programs, and the reaccreditation of the entire university were also important milestones. Ironically, we have never been as well embedded into Hungarian academic and civic life as we are now that we are packing for Austria.

Eva: This was teamwork; it’s hard to pinpoint something that is my individual achievement. I am proud of the fact that even after these four years most of my colleagues still speak to me. That and that my children still recognize me when I get home.

As CEU moves ahead to a new chapter in its nearly-30-year history, what are the areas that need updating in terms of structure or mission?

Zsolt: As far as our academics are concerned, we should refine our tools used to assess performance, and then we need to adjust our incentive system more towards actual contributions. We need better communication across the units, and we need to think more about what our students will do once they graduate.

Eva: Change is typically slow at CEU. One positive thing the move to Vienna will bring about is that we won’t be able to avoid rethinking who we are, what our future should be and how we plan to get there. I hope we will always cherish our past but will think freely and imaginatively about what kind of university we want to build in Vienna.

On that note, I happen to believe that our American style of education, American-university-inspired internal procedures and research networks are extremely valuable and we should reinforce these within this new context. In Hungary, with our limited Hungarian accreditation, it was fairly easy to identify as an American university and stick to our own values and modes of operation. I am worried that this may be more difficult in Austria and I don’t want to see CEU fully identified with the Austrian higher educational system any more than I wanted to see this happen in Hungary.

What are your future plans and how do they affect your ongoing academic projects?

Zsolt: I would like to slow things down a bit. Move, for a while, to a different environment, complete the many unfinished papers, and then come back to teaching, feeling re-charged.

Eva: In the very short run, I need a vacation – we all do – free of emails, free of computers and Teams meetings. Once I have recovered, I will head back to my “day job” as a faculty member in the Department of Gender Studies and also co-direct the Democracy Institute in Budapest. I am excited about both. I may be the only one, but I am actually curious about our online experiment: can digital education really work, how, if at all, and can it be used to open access to a wider range of students? Can we embrace new ways of learning, possibly even those that we have to learn from generations much younger than us?

I also have research projects to finish. Over the past three months, we launched a study on the domestic division of labor during the pandemic lockdowns and within two weeks the best gender studies journal published the results of our first survey in a blog post. Since then, we have repeated the survey but could only do the first preliminary analyses. I look forward to going back to that project as well as to the many others standing in line on my computer.

(The interviews continue individually)

Professor Eva Fodor:

Considering the experiences that you had in this role, what advice do you have for your successor?

My successor is a smart, strong and determined woman, she doesn’t need my advice.

Well, maybe one piece: Agi, buy a really good bottle of palinka (while you are still in Hungary!), you may just need it!

Have you experienced any changes regarding the gender equality situation at CEU during your role as pro-rector?

Some, but much more is needed. Over the past few years the SUPERA project has highlighted a number of areas of systemic gender inequality at CEU. As a result, a handful of new policies have been introduced and we have all become much more aware of the problem. But so much more needs to be done; I hope this work will continue.

Could you please tell us about the mission and vision of the Democracy Institute in Budapest?

The Democracy Institute will be launched to continue CEU’s mission in Budapest: to conduct free academic inquiry into questions related to democracy, to train students in these areas, to engender debates and to disseminate research results as widely as possible. We plan to conceptualize the topic of democracy broadly and involve a truly global network of contributors. Since the researchers as well as the activities of the DI will be closely integrated into the life of CEU PU, the DI will serve as a bridge between our two locations: Vienna and Budapest.

Professor Zsolt Enyedi:

How do you assess the future of CEU in light of current events, specifically the relocation to Vienna?

I have very mixed feelings about the move. It clearly offers bright prospects, but it will also lead to a thorough change in both identity and content. We will lose our role as a window to the Western world, so we must re-define ourselves.

CEU has achieved very prestigious academic rankings at the international level, most recently with the Shanghai Ranking. What are the planned developmental directions in terms of improving education and inclusivity?

The - partly unsolicited - visibility that we have gained over the previous years can help us to progress on both fronts. I hope that the stabilization of our status will attract students from different parts of the world and from different walks of life. Thanks to the BA programs, we will appear in rankings that were previously not accessible to us. And CIVICA will allow us to upgrade our social science training.

The Hungarian government’s spokesperson recently stated that Hungary will recognize any judgement from the Court of Justice of the European Union. If, as is expected, the Court of Justice rules against LEX CEU (the law by the Hungarian government regarding CEU), will CEU reconsider its move to Austria? And if not, why not?

Symbolically, this will be an important decision, but many of our colleagues are already in Vienna. The Hungarian government may formally accept the Court of Justice’s ruling, but that doesn’t change the fact that academic freedom is disrespected by the current Hungarian government. Future students deserve a safe environment. But we should use any possibility still open in Hungary to research, teach, and communicate with the wider public.