Michael Ignatieff and Student Activists Discuss Assaults on Academic Freedom in Hungary and Florida

March 15, 2023

In a March 10 conversation between Central European University (CEU) Professor Michael Ignatieff and student leaders from New College of Florida representing the activist group D.E.F.Y. (Defending Educational Freedom for Youth), Fatima Ismatulla and Josh Epstein, Ignatieff discussed the lessons learned from Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban’s assault on academic freedom in Hungary, including the expulsion of CEU from the country, and how they relate to the current government interference at New College from Florida Governor Ron DeSantis

The event, “Academic Freedom in the Balance,” was co-sponsored by the Open Society University Network’s Liberal Arts CollaborativeCentral European University's Democracy InstituteBard Center for Civic Engagement, and D.E.F.Y. The talk was moderated by Kyaw Moe Tun, head of the Open Society University Network’s Liberal Arts Collaborative based at Bard College and President of Parami University in Myanmar.New College of Florida, a public liberal arts institution, has recently undergone major changes implemented by DeSantis: half of its Board of Trustees has been replaced, its president dismissed, and new board members are threatening major changes to teaching and curricula, particularly on issues pertaining to race and gender. 

“What we’re seeing is that this puts Florida at a big risk of a brain drain,” Ismatulla said, noting that without an environment that supports tenure in numerous areas of study, talented educators would seek out positions in other states. “If we’re going to lose such important professors, such individuals who encourage us to think critically, then we’re not going to have the tools necessary that we were promised when we dropped our enrollment deposits at this institution, or any Florida institution that’s going to be under attack because of politics.” 

Ignatieff expressed outrage at the government interference at New College and characterized it as a "conservative counter attack" against basic democratic ideas. In the context of his experience struggling for academic freedom at CEU, he said the goal of Orban, DeSantis, and their supporters is to “create wedge issues that build their brand with conservative voters and if they smash up academic life in the process, they don’t care.” 

The conversation also addressed the national implications that DeSantis’s actions may have for higher education. DeSantis “appears to be set to run to be president,” Ignatieff said. “Were he to be successful nationally, he will then want to make these programs go national. And so, potentially this little story about New College is a huge national story about the future of higher education in the United States.” 

Independent self-governing institutions are a critical part of democracy, and one of the goals of D.E.F.Y is to provide resources to enable other institutions of higher learning to fight back against government intrusion. “We may have been the first domino that they’ve attacked, but we know that we’re not going to be the last. We know they’re going to expand their attacks on educational freedom, so we’re launching D.E.F.Y., ” said Epstein. “We’d like to build a broad coalition of alumni, faculty, parents, and students from universities across the country so we can set up chapters in universities, so that we make politicians think twice before they attack a university.”

Watch the discussion here:

This article was originally published by OSUN.