In an increasingly authoritarian era, it is more important than ever to defend academic freedom as a right with huge benefits for wider society, rather than merely a “privilege for professors,” the Central European University (CEU)’s Professor Michael Ignatieff has argued in a speech at the annual Centre for Global Higher Education conference at UCL.
Appearing as the conference’s 2018 Burton R. Clark lecturer on 11 April, the Rector and President of the CEU in Budapest used the platform to urge people to see universities as “counter-majoritarian institutions,” just as a free press and an independent judiciary are seen as essential to counteracting majority governments.
Following an introduction from Dame Nicola Brewer, UCL’s Vice-Provost International, the CEU head’s speech touched on authoritarian turns to higher education in countries including Russia, China and Turkey, with Ignatieff warning of an emerging picture in which “single party regimes are everywhere privileging control over academic quality and openness to international academic life because they see academic freedom as a regime threat.”
Professor Ignatieff and the CEU have experienced the threat he referenced first hand. The institution is embroiled in an ongoing battle with the Hungarian government over its location in Hungary after it passed a law in April 2017 imposing varying restrictions on overseas universities in the country, including the mandate to maintain a campus in their home country.
Ignatieff explained however that the subsequent outpouring of support for the CEU, which has included 75,000 marching through the streets of Hungary in opposition to the government decision, taught him that “universities should not underestimate their public support [nor] the power of their networks.”
Importantly, he realised, despite the institutional disposition of universities to be quiet, thoughtful and avoid conflict, “You sometimes have to fight a political battle to defend academic freedom.”
Academic freedom matters
Professor Ignatieff went on to admit that before this threat to the CEU, so close to home, he had “never really thought that hard about academic freedom. It seemed to be one of those little perks that middle-class educated people get to have.”
Now, however, he has realised, “We are not just fighting for a corporate privilege for ourselves; we are defending a counter majoritarian institution whose function is to serve and protect and defend the whole society’s capacity to know anything at all. That’s why academic freedom matters. If we defend it as a corporate privilege, we are done for. And that’s a central message that I have learned.”
Uncertain future for CEU
Professor Ignatieff said that the “thumping two-thirds majority” for Viktor Orbán’s government in Hungary’s recent parliamentary election means that the prime minister “now holds all the cards” when it comes to the CEU’s future.
The CEU boss added however that the outcome will depend on whether closing the university “turns out to be sufficiently unpopular inside his own party”.
Search for truth
Professor Ignatieff closed his speech by urging universities across the world to continue with its “unpopular job”. Institutions, he said, “have to train students that knowledge is extremely hard, that it’s a discipline you have to follow and once you’ve got it you have access to the most important thing a democratic system needs, which is the capacity to find out what is true.”
“It is an unpopular job and it’s a job that people may not want to hear. But it is our job and we have to defend it with courage and without any embarrassment. This is the moment when we really, really have to believe in what we do.”