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Talks Finally Begin on CEU’s Future

Officials of the Hungarian government and the State of New York have started negotiations on the further operation of the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest, according to a statement issued on June 23 by New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo. CEU welcomed the launch of the talks. 

“Today we held productive negotiations with representatives of the Hungarian government on the status of the Central European University, a world-class institution that is accredited in New York State,” Cuomo wrote in the statement. 

“We met to discuss a new law that threatens CEU’s continued presence in Hungary and the urgent need to preserve academic freedom. We made good progress in talks with Kristóf Altusz, Deputy State Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade,” the statement said, adding that “we look forward to a speedy resolution that safeguards the integrity of CEU and its vital educational mission.”

Shortly after the announcement, CEU welcomed the beginning of talks to resolve the issue, triggered by the recent passing of an amendment to Hungary’s higher education law (commonly known as lex CEU because it is seen by many as targeting the university founded by George Soros). That amendment sets new conditions for the operation of foreign-funded institutions in Hungary.

The government has always insisted the aim of the legislation is not to target CEU but rather to ensure greater transparency in the legal environment in which institutions of higher education operate, as well as to close “loopholes” which it claims CEU has exploited. Despite that, the law has been widely condemned by academics at home and abroad, as well as by the European Commission and U.S. government, and prompted mass demonstrations in support of CEU in Budapest.

“CEU welcomes the statement from New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo calling yesterday’s discussions with Kristóf Altusz, Hungarian Deputy State Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, productive,” reads a short statement put out by CEU and sent to the Budapest Business Journal, among other media outlets. “CEU is not a participant in the negotiations, but we hope they lead to a solution that enables CEU to remain in Budapest as a free institution,” the statement added.

No Intergovernmental Talks

Hungary had earlier been pushing for intergovernmental talks between Budapest and Washington to resolve the matter, but the United States refused, insisting that New York State, as the accrediting authority for CEU in America, was the proper authority.

That did not stop the American administration from passing comment in calling on to the Hungarian government to suspend the lex CEU, as Mark C. Toner, acting spokesperson of the U.S. Department of State, confirmed when answering a question during a press briefing back in April.

“We are very concerned about this legislation that was passed by Hungary’s Parliament last week that was signed into law by the president this week,” said Toner at the time. “We believe it threatens the continued operations of Central European University, which is a leading academic institution. It’s an important conduit for intellectual and cultural exchanges between Hungary and the United States. And frankly, it’s at the center of freethinking and research. The legislation, we believe, can also similarly threaten the operations of other American universities with degree programs in Hungary, so it goes beyond just Central European University,” he added, according to a transcript of the briefing posted on the website of the U.S. Department of State.

Toner confirmed that Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon and CEU President and Rector Michael Ignatieff had met to discuss the effect of the legal amendment on the university.

“We’re urging the Government of Hungary to suspend implementation of the law. We want to see a review and discussion in order to address any concerns through dialogue with the university itself and other affected institutions going forward,” Toner added.

Since that time, the Minister of Human Capacities Zoltán Balog and United States Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos have exchanged letters on the act, as reported on the government website The headline says she “raised no objections to the Act”, although that isn’t specifically mentioned again in the text. In his latest letter to DeVos, Balog expressed his hope that “this complicated legal issue can be resolved to everyone’s mutual satisfaction at the earliest opportunity in view of the fact that American institutions of higher education operating legally in Hungary help reinforce Hungarian-American relations”.