Defending Academic Freedom in a Populist Age

Universities nowadays often must fight for their independence on two fronts, against autocratic governments and private interests from without, and against the threat from within posed by fiefdoms of jargon and self-righteous coercion. But success ultimately depends on convincing fellow citizens that what may look like a battle for the privileged few is a battle for the benefit of all.

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BERLIN – I am the President of Central European University, which is now under attack. CEU is fighting to remain a free institution in Budapest, Hungary’s capital, following the passage of new legislation that would, in essence, require the university to close.

CEU’s battle has become a global cause célèbre. More than 650 colleges, universities, and professional associations have opposed Hungary’s legal moves against CEU. Some 80,000 people marched through the streets of Budapest in our defense. Twenty-four Nobel laureates have lent their prestige to our cause. On June 22, one of them, Mario Vargas Llosa, will join us in Budapest for a conference on the global challenge to academic freedom.

We at CEU know that we are not the only university struggling to repel government attacks. Across Turkey, universities are being padlocked, and professors are being purged. In St. Petersburg, our sister European University struggles against repeated malicious attempts to close it down.

These are but some of the threats that universities now face from without. Yet there are equally worrying threats from within.