The idea of creating the Central European University was conceived in 1989, and its foundation followed quite soon thereafter, in 1991. Its fundamental concept was to find a way for an educational institution to help the transition from Soviet-type dictatorships to democratic open societies. We talked with Éva Fodor, the pro-rector of CEU, to discuss whether CEU was a product of the shift in power or if it to some extent was also able to influence social processes. AN INTERVIEW BY ÁGNES MERÉNYI.

Éva Fodor: The goal was the creation of an institution to educate the intelligentsia that would execute the transition, that would be able to create a democracy, to practice democratic rights, and to ensure the democratic exercise of power. It was mostly about Central and Eastern European socialist states. The whole thing was based on the idea of George Soros’s open society, namely that this can be taught. They wanted to found an institution that teaches democratic “behavior” and liberal democratic thought and furthermore teaches policy-making with various tools and analyses. The fact that in those days we had campuses in three countries—Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary—shows that we really moved in Central and Eastern European post-socialist circles. The leadership of the university hoped that this multi-central structure would promote openness and the free transfer of ideas. This came to an end because the university was forced to move from the Czech Republic for political reasons and then we only had one department in Poland. So logistically it became easier to run the operation from Budapest. But the goal to create a new type of intelligentsia from the youth of Central and Eastern Europe did not change.

Revizor: Who were the founders?

ÉF: George Soros, obviously, but also many known figures of the era, participants of contemporaneous academic life: István Rév, Miklós Vásárhelyi, György Litván, Alajos Dornbach, Tibor Vámos, István Teplán, just to name a few.

R: How did CEU affect cultural and academic public life at the time of its foundation and right afterward?

ÉF:  I would say [it affected] academic and political public life. It had little influence on the cultural aspects of public life, but it had a very explicit one on the academic community. What happened was that the Eastern European students encountered mostly for the first time a very different educational system, where studying was not like it had been in our time at the university, attending lectures, going home, and then having oral exams. It was more education through discussions and debates. This was radically new for our students, a veritable shock. This feeling is somewhat still palpable, to a lesser extent. If students come from a traditional, lecture-based educational system, they can be somewhat puzzled by what they find here. You need to have chats and this in fact is studying? Do they have to express their thoughts? Why should anybody care about them? And if they read something, they do not have to learn the content, but maybe engage with it in the debate, question it. They learned this methodology at CEU, and then there were two types of choices: they either went home to their country, to their university and tried to introduce it there, or they went to the States, did a Ph.D., and then either started to work there and made a career, or they went home to try to do the same.

R: Which was one of the goals set during the foundation of the university. 

ÉF: Yes. Of course, this did not happen in the course of one or two years, there was a bit of a lag time. But CEU was unquestionably the first institute where many Central Europeans had the chance to get to know this different, Anglo-Saxon type of educational system, where knowledge transfer happens more interactively and not in an authoritative manner. And it had a strong influence here, it started spreading. Not only due to CEU: the changes in the world also played a role, everybody traveled more, including the students. And over the years, more and more of our former students got into influential positions at universities in countries of the region. All we have said so far is about the effect CEU had on education. But let us not forget that after our students learned English well here and received an American degree, they went home and obtained certain positions in the political systems, many of them participated in political decision-making processes in the post-Soviet countries, but not exclusively. Our department of law was very much into issues of human rights. Directly after 1989, these were relatively new concepts in this part of the world, and useful knowledge was offered, especially in the area of European integration. And in addition to useful knowledge and skills, our students of course obtained contacts as well.

R: I stubbornly try to get to the bottom of the effect that this vastly different educational system of CEU had specifically. 

ÉF: This quickly became apparent when many Eastern European students were able to go to American grad schools. They could not have done that with a degree from ELTE, or only with great difficulty. This way it was easier: if someone attended CEU for two years, they learned the language of English academia and received support for applying. CEU was spectacularly different in this regard. We are a ladder or a springboard of sorts. Listen, up ’til now about 15,000 students of ours have graduated, many of whom are in positions of academia, education, or politics. And one more thing: these students would not have had the chance to get an American degree. CEU provided the gateway.

R: Setting off for instance from Kazakhstan…

ÉF: Or Veszprém for that matter. Starting off in an educated family in Budapest, you might have had a chance, but even then, it would have been difficult. This is an American degree with all kinds of benefits. This opportunity did not exist before. It also provided the option to balance the differences between eastern and western educational systems, or to bridge the gap.

The CEU building in Budapest. PC: Central European University.

R: To what extent did CEU as an international institution widen the perspective of the students? And how?

ÉF: To an astounding extent. I cannot emphasize this enough. That is the fundamental experience of our students. They come from 120 different countries: one walks into a room and fifteen people are sitting there from fifteen different countries. It was a fundamental experience for me, too, by the way. In the era of the transition, that meant fifteen Eastern European countries. There were two or three Hungarians among them. Today, the diversity is even greater, there are lot less from Eastern Europe, as thanks to the EU they can now go to universities in Western Europe a lot easier. But if I enter a classroom, there are a lot of students from outside Europe, from India, Brazil, Vietnam, Pakistan, Iran, China, Africa, Kirgizstan, and even the US. It is an unbelievably colorful, global community. For the Eastern Europeans, this is a particularly special experience, as they are not used to being surrounded by so many people of different colors, customs, traditions, religions, and this environment follows them back to the dorm after classes. Many are stunned, at first, they might even have aversions, but they realize without exception that they are all interested in the same things, they study similar subjects, and the aversions are soon gone. This is a fundamental experience for them. Of course, we teach them nice and useful things, but they are really formed by the community. These contacts usually last. The students learn to communicate and function and network in the global environment. They learn to navigate an international environment and to be tolerant. They learn not to fear otherness, be it being a Muslim, gay, feminist, black. If they are continuously exposed to otherness, any kind of fear of it disperses. I think this is the best [thing] that CEU does.

R: Is this extraordinary diversity typical of all majors, departments, and subjects?

FÉ: More or less, but not quite. The departments went through globalization at a very similar pace, their focus became global as opposed to Central and Eastern European. By the way, it is not always easy, because students come from all over the world, so their knowledge and experiences vary a lot, and these are not easy to harmonize at all. But we need to tackle the issue.

R: For example, I suppose you need to harmonize the curriculum. 

FÉ: Exactly. Just think about it, I go into class, I started teaching Introduction to Gender Studies, I have six Eastern Europeans in the classroom and two or three Americans and Western Europeans. I tell them the history of western feminism without any trouble, but if I also have two Chinese students, they will be absolutely justified to think: they have their own history of that, why does that not deserve a mention. And they would be totally right. And I do not know the literature on that, never studied it, I am not even sure they exist in English. Of course, I could learn one or two new languages…but individual departments put a lot of effort into translating literature into English. We have to adapt.

R: Isn’t scientific encounter narrowed by the fact that English is the uniform language of communication? Even though everybody who publishes will make an effort to translate their papers and studies to English, there certainly exist publications in major languages such as Russian, Hindi, and Chinese that are not reproduced in English. 

ÉF: I’m sure they exist, and yes, in this sense, encounters are narrowed. We do have complaints from students because of that.

R: What is accessible and what isn’t is a question of canon.

FÉ: Yes, but who determines the canon? Who is to say what students should read? Gender studies is one of the easier cases, but if you teach literature, why should that be Western European? Why Shakespeare? Many people debate that, too, and debate is a tool of learning in this case, as well. Questioning the canon.

The CEU building in Vienna. PC: Central European University.

R: We have also mentioned that students graduating from CEU often go home and join the political life, they become decision-makers. How do various governments regard that?

FÉ: It varies. In certain governments, it is an advantage. For instance, I just allowed a student to hand in his thesis later, because all of a sudden he was given an important political assignment in his home, a small country in the Caucasus, and he had his plate full. I cannot say specific examples with names and countries, but let us take the law, more specifically the area of human rights. Many students come from Africa, who, having finished their studies, go home and become high ranking officials. Because exactly like the Eastern European students earlier, they get the same education, an international perspective, problem solving and communication skills, they are able to network, and all of that makes them fit to occupy such a position. In other countries, people deny having a CEU degree, they omit to mention it in their CV, because it is a political stigma, a commitment. Hungary is an example of that. And Romania. Me or my colleagues would have no job offers here in Hungary, if for some reason I should quit.

R: In the mission statement of the university, interdisciplinarity is of utmost importance. Was that typical from the start or only in the last decade?

ÉF: It was present from the start but gained momentum with time. A few years after the foundation, there already was a Gender Studies program that later became a department. And then we have, for instance, Sociology and Anthropology, a subject that cannot be accredited in Hungary, because it is neither sociology nor anthropology, it is an interdisciplinary branch of science. And a relatively recent development is the Department of Cognitive Studies. CEU provides the option to move between disciplines, and people do take advantage of that. It is not so much on the level of departments but on the level between departments, such as our Advanced Certificate programs. These focus on specific topics, such as religious studies. You enroll, let us say, to sociology, but you take several courses about religious studies, and that will give you a certificate.

R: How did you get in contact with CEU? You did not study here: you were an undergrad at ELTE and went to grad school at UCLA. 

ÉF: When I wanted to come home from America to be here for my elderly parents, I looked around searching for a job. And CEU was the only place I could see myself at. Before coming home, I held a few courses as an associate lecturer for one or two years – luckily, the timetable of Dartmouth College and CEU were compatible – and after that, I got a job. It was really this or nothing, because of the salary, the intellectual environment, the academic opportunities, the support of international applications, and other factors. Other Hungarian universities offer less of these options or with significantly less ease. In short, mentality and money: without CEU, I would not have come home.

R: Will the – let us call it – relocation of the university to Vienna nullify or at least render insignificant the joint results of CEU and the era of 1989?

ÉF: That depends on the perspective. For the university, this is a good opportunity. The salary of the teachers increased significantly, as they need to get an international salary. That was more or less the case here in Hungary as well, but prices are a lot lower here. In Vienna, they are anything but. A building needs to be bought. The students are glad to come to Vienna. Teachers are also easier to contract, they are happy to bring their families to Vienna. And if they happen to have a darker complexion, they don’t get harassed daily on the streets, which sadly was an everyday experience here. Ditto for the students. So, for the institution, this is an opportunity to develop. It will change, that much is obvious, one can already sense that they focus less on Eastern European students. Concerning Hungary and the results of the past thirty years…well, you don’t often have governments that score such an intellectual goal. In more detail: we had a lot of programs, a lot of lecturers whom we were able to invite, and they actually came to give a lecture. Other universities are less able and willing to do that. We gave work to a lot of Hungarian researchers in all sorts of scientific research projects. Although the university moves, we will found in its place a hopefully dynamic research institute with a similarly high international quality. It will be researching democracy. It will be called the Democracy Institute. But most of the library will also move, as it will be needed in Vienna. In the first few years, attachment to Budapest and nostalgia will be strong, but I think it will pass. This move is a narrowing of the horizon of Hungarian intellectual and academic life, which is extraordinary even among the typically anti-intellectual measures of the Hungarian government.


Translated by Péter Papolczy

This article was originally posted on Revizor Online on June 26, 2020, and has been reposted with permission. To read the original article, click here.

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