Manifesto of the CEU Radical Student Collective

Photo by Daily News Hungary

Note from the LeftEast editors: The Central European University – a private University in Budapest founded by George Soros’s Open Society Foundation – has attracted the attention of the world media with its strife against the Victor Orban government in Hungary. A struggle over its right to remain in the country ensued in early 2017 when the notorious bill remembered as LexCEU was hastily passed by hungarian legislators. It contained a Catch 22 clause making the functioning of the institution built os symbol of the transition from state socialism to liberal democracy impossible within the Hungarian polity. Since then, the leadership of CEU headed by Canadian liberal politician and former Harvard professor Michael Ignatieff, has played what seemed a subtle dimplomatic game against the Hungarian regime. Yet, despite institutional changes to fit Lex CEU’s demands, Ignatieff’s team’s manoeuvres, and the paralleled mass mobilisation that the threat to CEU provoked (not just in the CEU community, but in the Hungarian public at large), in December 2018 it was announced that CEU is moving to Vienna. The details of this unfortunate move have mostly been kept in silence: a tactical strategy which Ignatieff’s management has deployed in the negotiations with the authorities, and which has not been successful except to seal off any possibility of open critique from CEU against his leadership. Yet, several tensions, contradictions and hypocrisies within the Central European University have recently came into the spotlight. With this manifesto, the Radical Student Collective, a group active within CEU since early 2018, have addressed some of those points, paying attention to the internal machinery of an institution that preaches openness, without practicing it.

MANIFESTO OF THE RADICAL STUDENT COLLECTIVE

Since its inception CEU has had a mission: to bring the intellectual forces of the liberal West to the post-communist East; to guide the transition of struggling Central European countries to market economies and capitalism; to enlighten people ravaged by “totalitarianism” of the freedoms of open society.

Regardless of one’s view of such a mission, it is undeniable that 26 years later it has come back to haunt CEU with a vengeance. The very same people who the university’s founders had once found so promising—who were once financed by the university’s founders or even educated here—have lashed out against CEU with the same rhetoric it brought to the region. They accuse us of being watchdogs of a totalitarian EU, cultural Marxists who threaten all that they’ve built since 1989, and liberal intellectual elites who think themselves above Hungarians and Hungarian academia. The university reaps what its founders sowed.

Now, CEU must move. Massive and swollen, it gathers up as much of itself as it can carry and plans to throw itself over the border into the nearest (allegedly) less despotic country in hopes that it can survive. The pain and difficulty of such an undertaking is obvious to all of us. How will we pay for it? Will stipends increase? What will happen to the students already here? How can professors commute with families? How will the staff here keep their jobs? Where will we live? Will departments get cut? Will some move and some stay? Will CEU ever come back? How will CEU change?

In answering those questions, the Board of Trustees is frustrated by the university’s inability to act like one of their many corporations, which can dispense of employees at will, move over borders at ease, and not complain about threats to their “integrity.” They justify their calls for austerity in the language of multinational corporations, citing low-performing investments in the endowment and encouraging increasing revenues through higher tuition and reduced financial aid. As the mayhem of the move approaches, they’ve grown increasingly pernicious. Like our would-be-messiah-turned-Fidesz-collaborator Ambassador Cornstein, the Board crunches the university’s vast and diverse system into simple numbers that are easy for businessmen to digest (Cornstein: “Why does everyone care so much about CEU if they only have 1,500 students? Ohio State has 50,000 students!”). Cursorily glancing over CEU’s budget, they ask angrily why do we need such and such department? Why should some departments have tuition-paying students and others have stipend-paid ones? Why don’t all students pay tuition? Why don’t more students come to CEU on expensive exchange programs? The Board is utilizing the Vienna move as an opportunity to implement profit-minded changes, betraying an utter disinterest in the current class, race, and nationality composition of CEU.

The administration and the Board have demonstrated that they are willing to excise the elements of CEU that they see as worthless. CEU is a mix of US American and Central European university systems, a paradoxical hybrid built on esteem for the business-like and efficient model of the former and the supposed inferiority of the latter. Though the school was founded to educate students from Hungary, Serbia, Ukraine, Bosnia and the many other financially powerless countries in the region, some members of the Board have expressed their content with CEU becoming a fully American-style, fee-paying university that caters to the wealthier students of the United States and Western Europe. In the American university model, where tuition can easily be over $50,000 a year and is only increasing, students bear the brunt of financial pressures on schools. For the Board, this seems a perfectly acceptable solution.

This is not a sudden development, rather Central European University is completing a long, drawn-out separation from the region it was born in, the region it now bears resemblance to only in name. Only a dense fog of illusion can allow anyone–politician or PR consultant–to argue that this will still be an institution for Central and Eastern European students and faculty or one rooted in “Central European Intellectual Traditions”. Because now that the administration has finished all its calculations its clear that the students have come out on the bottom. The monthly stipend for PhDs in Vienna is €200 below Austrian minimum wage, and the one for MAs is l/5th of that.

It’s clear that Central and Eastern European students have been written out of the equation entirely (not to mention ones from South America, Africa, Asia, and everyone too poor to live in a city of imperial palaces on their own dime). The administration is happy to trade being known as the 2nd most diverse school in the world for being known as yet another diploma printer for the wealthy. Its community of students from across the world will be replaced by a “global community” representing little more than former colonial powers, whose inhabitants still reap the benefits of their forefathers’ crimes.

By moving to Vienna at the expense of its students, CEU becomes a case study in the neoliberal, dogmatic faith in developmentalism, where democracy is confused with market liberalism, where open dialogue is replaced with lectures on “Open Society”, and where diversity disguises cultural imperialism. Therefore, should the move to Vienna happen as the administration wills it, then the university should shed its name, for in doing so it casts aside its pride in Central Europe and its pride in its international student body.

Already in spring in the hectic days of thesis writing, many of us shrug our shoulders at the news of what Viennese stipends will be, accepting that it’s too late to save the CEU we had the privilege to know. The Radical Student Collective refuses to do so. We refuse to refrain from criticizing the school simply because it is under attack.  Every lost position, every deterioration of workers’ rights, every closed program and every unfunded student brought on by the move is the consequence of choices made with eyes wide open, not of a well-meaning administration with tied hands.

And certainly it is not only students negatively affected by the move or the Board’s machinations. Some dedicated professors (with tenure) are told that if they share basic information with the students about how their department will conduct its classes next year they can be fired. And though the school brandishes its academic integrity in face of Fidesz’s pressure, programs that all threaten CEU’s status are dropped in an instant. When the refugee education program OLIve became classified as “migrant propaganda” by the government and held the risk of major financial seizures by Fidesz, CEU not only stopped the program but suspended all of its faculty and their research without so much as a head’s up.

Having bowed to the Board’s whims, the administration is apparently nonplussed by such changes—ones that would inevitably strip CEU of everything that makes it unique, particularly its diverse student body from all over the world and from academic traditions that are so rarely bridged. We agree with the administration, that what makes CEU unique and important is its incredibly diverse character and global perspectives. Unlike the administration, we believe this is worth preserving.

The Board wishes to exploit CEU’s fragility in the move to reform the university for its own purposes, but we can do precisely the same.

We, the Radical Student Collective, reject the administration’s handling of the Vienna move and call for a new approach that places staff, students, and faculty before the interests of the administration and the Board.

We reject the current mission of CEU, viewing it as an Orientalizing, capitalist enterprise that undermines the intellectual efforts of our academics and denigrates the region the university calls home, many of the students who come here, and the staff who keep it all running. It is a neoliberal mission in a region that has been ravaged and continues to be ravaged by neoliberalism. The current mission has led directly to the university’s current crisis and must be reformulated to reflect the causes of that crisis.

CEU was conceived in the late-Cold War and its divisive sentiments of Western superiority and Western “openness” in a time of intense close-mindedness. We reject such a political mission, but we do think CEU’s mission should be political. The university was born in a time when walls were coming down and it is being reborn in a time when they are going back up. The wave of political discontent that has been spreading from the former East Bloc since 1989—a movement liberals now call “populism”—is a symptom of an unrivalled capitalism crashing in on itself, deepening inequalities and hatreds in an attempt to preserve the hegemonies of an unpreservable system.

We declare that the new mission of CEU should be to investigate, expose, and condemn the sources of inequality and oppression in our society; to repair the damage done and to help bring the damagers to justice; and to envision a system that is not built on the exploitation of class, race, gender, or the environment, and not dedicated to the relentless pursuit of capital. As a diverse and global university, CEU can bring post-colonial perspectives to bear on the centers of modern imperialism, post-communist experiences on the heart of capitalism, and progressive voices on the growing cacophony of reaction.

We lodge the following criticisms against CEU’s administration and call for the following solutions:

1. The RSC declares its solidarity with the CEU Trade Union and staff. We demand increased representation of the Union’s voice in the university administration in the form of a union representative in the senate; recognition of the non-university employed staff who run CEU’s buildings and are not represented by the Union; greater openness about the disparity of pay, information, and security related to contracts among the faculty and staff; full transparency about hiring, firing, and cutbacks involved in the move to Vienna; and quality-of-life improvements for faculty and staff who will have to commute to Vienna, such as shuttle buses, child-care, and housing stipends.

2. The RSC declares its solidarity with the faculty. We demand that the Board and administration see the complexity and diversity of our departments and respect their own decisions in orchestrating the move to Vienna. Each department functions differently in terms of student stipends, teaching, and intellectual production. They cannot be easily compared to one another, nor reduced to the simplicity of a spreadsheet. We particularly express our solidarity with the Mathematics department, a renowned faculty with deep ties to Hungarian academy that has long been sidelined by the administration and is now the first victim of the Vienna cutbacks.

3. The RSC declares its solidarity with the organizations tied to CEU, like the OLIve Program, the Open Society Archive, and CEU Press. We demand greater transparency between the administration and the university’s satellite organizations over how they will be affected by the move, by cutbacks, and by access to students and faculty. We demand administrative accountability to the commitments they have made to these satellite organizations, including clear and consistent communication and open discussion with all affected.

4. The RSC demands an adjustment of master and doctoral stipends in order to meet the living expenses in Vienna and Budapest, and opposes any future cuts to tuition waivers and other scholarships. If CEU is serious about its commitment to academic freedom, it must offer free education to those who otherwise would not be able to afford it. We are aware that the majority of the student population falls in this category, and we believe that a move to Vienna without the appropriate funding would entrench CEU’s status as an elite institution which reproduces liberal ruling classes throughout Eastern Europe and beyond. We believe that CEU can and should be better than that, allowing for a true diversity of views and experiences in its academic environment.

5. The RSC demands renewed attention and solutions to the issue of sexual harassment. It cannot be cast aside as “kicking the university while it’s down;” it must be dealt with seriously and continually no matter the external pressures that CEU faces. We demand the administration agree on a robust and effective sexual harassment policy in dialogue with students, faculty, and staff. The years it takes to see action when allegations are made within the school and the widespread issues of sexual manipulation of students at CEU demonstrate the administration’s shameful lack of proper mechanisms for reporting, and then adequately dealing with, sexual harassment.

6. The RSC also demands renewed attention and solutions to the issue of gender and racial discrimination. The pitiful number of female faculty in many departments is not only embarrassing compared to other universities, it is a detriment to the teaching and intellectual production of the university as a whole and to the training of future generations of academics. We demand the creation of an overseeing faculty committee to investigate and scrutinize new faculty hires and the appointments of fellows. We also call for a special faculty-and-student-led tribunal specifically for issues of gender and racial discrimination that occur among both students and faculty. Problems like male students stalking their female colleagues or professors telling non-native English speakers to “shut up” if they don’t understand something cannot be solved by a slap on the wrist or a talking-to from the department chair. There must be an institutionalized and effective authority that can handle racial and gender discrimination through due process.

7. The RSC demands a rethinking of Central European University’s “Central European” character and urges the faculty and administration to find a new balance for the university that embraces the history and significance of Central Europe without denigrating or dismissing it. We’ve all discussed how “Central” European CEU would be if it moves to Austria, nominally firmly within Western Europe in the current geopolitical understanding of its borders, but in reality CEU has always had a fraught relationship with the region for which it is named. CEU’s administration has increasingly cast aside Hungarian students and Hungarian academia as inferior. It is unacceptable for CEU to imagine itself as there “for the benefit” of Hungarian academia rather than striving for a mutually beneficial relationship. The RSC demands better recruitment of students in the region, particularly Hungary; increased connections between CEU and other universities in the region; and free Hungarian classes for students, faculty, and staff to forge a closer relationship between us and Hungarians beyond the CEU “bubble.”

Founded between March and April 2018, the Radical Student Collective is a student initiative aimed at promoting left-wing political ideas and critical thinking at Central European University. RSC aims to be a haven from the overwhelming liberalism of the institution. During the first year they organized lectures, discussions and film screenings. They also focused on issues and contradictions of student life at CEU.

 

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