"It was a great battle" - Michael Ignatieff, President and Rector of Central European University, on the lost fight against Viktor Orban, his new home in Austria, and the miracle of the Viennese tram

Interview by Sebastian Loudon, Datum Magazine, March 2021

At the beginning of this interview there is a small disappointment. For months I have been trying to get an interview with Michael Ignatieff. So many questions have pent up since we last met more than four years ago. Ignatieff, born in Toronto in 1947, studied there and attended seminars with Marshall McLuhan, among other things. A picture-book academic career followed with Harvard and everything that goes with it, he wrote numerous books and finally went into politics. For the liberal party he sat in the Canadian parliament for five years, for three years he was even the opposition leader, until a painful election defeat in 2011 - then university life called him again. Ignatieff has been Rector of Central European University (CEU) since 2016. The university founded by George Soros in Budapest exactly 30 years ago has been under attack for years by the Hungarian government led by Viktor Orban. With a transparent legislative maneuver, CEU was practically deprived of its livelihood in Hungary in 2018. Under the aegis of Ignatieff, the university fought against this, sometimes successfully soliciting support from Europe, but ultimately had to admit defeat. The city of Vienna sensed an opportunity to attract the internationally renowned university. The transition quarter is on Quellenstrasse in Favoriten, and almost all activities have now been relocated to Vienna. From 2025, the university should find its permanent home on the grounds of the Otto Wagner Hospital at Steinhof. There we arranged to meet for a walk when Ignatieff accepted my interview request. However, Ignatieff's life is not boring in Vienna either. A CEU student has recently been arrested in Egypt. The authorities accuse him of membership in a terrorist organization and of spreading false news. The Rector's commitment to a release or at least a constitutional process takes full advantage of the Rector. So, instead of walking through the wintry Steinhof grounds, we could only talk on the phone.

For a long time it was not entirely clear which areas of university life CEU would actually leave in Budapest for Vienna. How does that look today? 

Practically all of our courses - Bachelor, Master and PhD programs - take place in Vienna. Only around ten percent are still held in Budapest, because we do not yet have accreditation for it in Austria. In any case, our Democracy Institute, which we founded as a flagship last year, will remain in Budapest. The importance of an institute for democracy in Hungary does not need special emphasis. Then there is the library, our Institute for Advanced Studies and our Archives - the largest archive of the Cold War in Europe. CEU will therefore continue to have a strong presence in Budapest, but 90 percent of the students - and our future - are in Vienna. 

The students being in Vienna - in times of distance learning that means that they are actually somewhere else, namely in their home countries.

Exactly, they are in Nepal, Egypt, South America or the United States. We are a global university, but to be honest: we would love to be local! We would like to have everyone here in Vienna under one roof and hope that we can resume normal teaching from September. 

Before we look ahead, let’s take a look back at Orban's Hungary: In previous interviews you have always emphasized that as long as Hungarian medium-sized companies benefit from the economic boom, Orban's success will not change. Now an economic crisis is unfolding in practically every country. How do you see Hungary's near political future against the backdrop of the pandemic?

The most important and most positive development is the merger of the Hungarian opposition parties. It looks like they will jointly challenge Viktor Orban's Fidesz party in the 2022 elections. That would be a huge step. Of course, an economic crisis can create a very difficult situation for Orban, on the other hand, there is a development that can benefit him greatly: namely the failure of the EU to deliver Covid-19 vaccine to the 27 member states. Hungary is the only EU member state to have opted for the Chinese and Russian vaccines. This can have serious consequences for the election, namely if Orban can run with the claim that he has protected the Hungarian people. As I said, everything is very unpredictable. But one thing is certain: Orban is one of the most ruthless politicians in Europe, and no one should bet on his approaching decline.  

Orban was previously considered a liberal, he studied at Oxford with a scholarship from George Soros. He later fought against Soros‘ initiative and what it stands for to the extreme. What has happened there?

That is a big question, the answer to which ultimately tells a lot about the history of CEU. This university was founded in 1991 to accompany the transition to a liberal democracy. It was a brilliant thought by George Soros that a free society also needed a free university - and he has been sticking to it for 30 years. But there is no doubt that this transition did not take place as he expected. It worked well until Hungary was in the EU. We thought the work, the transition to liberal democracy was done. Instead, it turned out that the Union's ability to incentivize young democracies like Hungary to continuously develop even more in a democratic direction was much weaker than expected. Orban understood very early on that there are more votes on the right of center than on the left in Hungary. In addition: Hungary is a country of small towns and villages - they play an incredibly important role in the intellectual life of Hungary. Orban had a better instinct for this rural basis in Hungary than his liberal friends in Budapest. He listened better to them, and so he built a base in the country that would stick with him over the years. After the financial crisis of 2008, he seemed to protect ordinary Hungarians from the big bad Austrian banks. He posed as the protector of the common people against the Budapest elites. Then he began to see himself as a European if not worldwide symbol for a new right-wing populism: anti-liberal, anti-EU, anti-migration, but strongly influenced by religion. And from the first day he took office, he worked to consolidate the one-party state. He went much further than Poland, much further than any other member state of the EU. That led to our expulsion because in the midst of an increasingly unfree society he could not tolerate a free institution. And he did, though - and that's important! - the EU has declared its actions to be unlawful. The law that kicked us out is illegal. Therefore, we are also examining what our legal options are. 

You have now arrived in Austria, a country whose Chancellors are increasingly accused by critics of pre-authoritarian traits, for example in dealing with the judiciary. As someone who has seen developments in Hungary first hand - do you see parallels between Orban and Kurz?

Let's remember the facts: Orban threw us out and Kurz welcomed us. It is crucial. I have never had a conversation with members of Kurz’ party where I felt they wanted something to do with Orban's university policy. Look, there may be points where you agree with Orban's policies, but that's not my business. We are in Vienna, because political forces across the board, of course, have given us a very strong welcome from the city of Vienna, i.e. Michael Ludwig and Michael Haupl. The Chancellor received George Soros in an appropriate manner. I was even with the Freedom Party two years ago, and they basically said they had no problem with us. I understand the concerns and worries of some people with certain positions in Austrian politics, but as Rector of CEU I can only say that we had a wonderful reception. We never had a problem with Kurz, his party, or anyone here - that is quite extraordinary, because we are a clearly liberal and progressive institution that believes in an open society. We are in Vienna, because it is the only place in Central and Eastern Europe where we are safe and where we can hopefully be until the end of our days. I think Vienna knows that too. Why did this deal come about for our new campus on the Steinhof grounds? Because Vienna, but also the federal government and all parties understand that the future of Austria lies in Europe, and the future of Vienna in an international capital of education, innovation and so on. This is not a charitable event and no social work! They understand perfectly well that it is good for Vienna and good for Austria to have a university of international standing.

And we're delighted that you see it that way. What does it actually do with an organizational culture when you are so fiercely attacked and fought and then pitch your tents in another city?

Without a doubt, the struggle to stay in Budapest gave our organization energy and brought us closer together. It was a great battle, because it reminded us why universities are important to a society, why academic freedom is important, and why our university is especially important - we became a symbol. You can't have 80,000 people on your doorstep shouting "free universities in a free society" in chants without tears in your eyes. It was very emotional and this memory will stay with me all my life. We are definitely the only university in Europe, if not the world, that has been forced to move from one state to another - especially during a pandemic. I mean, honestly, it was really tough. Our people are very tired, very exhausted. My job as Rector and President was and is to stick everyone together, to keep marching forward. And we will. Vienna is great, I love this city and I think a large part of our faculty loves to be here, because the atmosphere is much more pleasant. We are not an enemy of the state here. A very important factor here is the prospect of moving to Steinhof in 2025. We are just getting the first proposals for the architectural tender, and you cannot look at these sketches without shouting “Wow, wow, wow”. It's going to be fantastic and that goal keeps us going. 

CEU continues to have a strong focus on Central and Eastern Europe. To what extent will the move to Vienna affect this? 

I don't think we can already know that today. Vienna is a fun place, it thinks of itself as Western European, and every time you get into a taxi or go to the cafe you realize how many people from Eastern Europe are here. When my wife and I moved here, we had to park our car right in front of someone else's garage in order to unload. A man came and yelled at us in German. When he saw our Hungarian license plate, he seamlessly switched to Hungarian and kept shouting. This is Vienna! There are people, such as faculty members, who have stayed in Budapest for family reasons, who fear that we will lose our souls in Vienna. I do not believe that. We're going to reinvent ourselves, we're going to be a completely different university in five to ten years, but I think we're going to be a better university. Why? Two reasons: We are more successful in recruiting employees here, because Vienna is a highly attractive city. Secondly, we can also see this in the 20 to 40 percent increase in applications for our training programs - despite the higher cost of living in Vienna. This city allows us to grow, in Budapest our air was cut off. You just can't run a free institution in an authoritarian society - it doesn't work. 

You spent a few years in politics for the Canadian Liberals and are still concerned with the prospects of liberal politics. What style, what tonality does liberal politics need nowadays in a world in which populist forces are playing with fear and resentment more and more openly? 

What I've learned in the political arena is that you don't get any awards for being posh. You have to fight, and liberalism also has to become more aggressive. But you should never leave the arena dirtier than you found it. 

You have already announced that you will resign as CEU’s Rector and President after your contract period expires in June. How will you continue? 

I'm not going anywhere, we're staying in Vienna. I will stay at the university as a professor. Even if some think I'm crazy, I would like to teach again. I'm currently working on a book about consolation in the context of the history of ideas. That made me want to bring the great thinkers closer to young students. I'll live in Josefstadt, go to the vegetable seller and use the Viennese tram. Because the Viennese tram is a never-ending source of amazement for my wife and me. My phone tells me it'll arrive in two minutes, and lo and behold, it is there in two minutes. (laughs) I just don't get it - how is that possible?


There are people who fear that we will lose our souls in Vienna. I do not believe that. We will reinvent ourselves and be a completely different but better university in five to ten years. 


In autumn 2020 Michael Ignatieff wrote the essay “Liberalism in the Anthropocene” for the American publication “Liberties.” In it, he describes the perspectives of a liberal policy in the fight against pandemic and climate change.