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Hungarian Law Could Close Central European University Founded By George Soros


An American university in Hungary is fighting for survival. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban wants to shut it down, even though European Union officials are warning him not to. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: One of the 1,400 students at Central European University fretting about their future is Gaspar Bekes. The 23-year-old Hungarian says he's channeling his stress into organizing protests against a new Hungarian law that could shut down the university also known as CEU.

GASPAR BEKES: Destroying the best Hungarian university is mental really. I just couldn't believe it. It's like the Cultural Revolution in China. They are just not taking people away yet, so destroying this for a political purpose is outrageous.

NELSON: That sentiment is shared by a growing number of foreign leaders and academics. They have appealed to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to rescind the new law and spare the world renowned university. But his spokesman Zoltan Kovacs who is a CEU graduate says the law is intended to ensure all universities in Hungary operate on a level playing field.

Kovacs says an American-accredited university that operates in Hungary should also have a campus in its home country. He denies the law's a direct attack on CEU or its Hungarian-born founder George Soros, an American investor and philanthropist who is often at odds with Orban.

ZOLTAN KOVACS: It wouldn't be nice, actually, if the university is closed, but, again, don't make it a democracy debate. That's my real problem that the existence or nonexistence of a private-founded Soros university is being raised as the standard for liberty and freedom in a country. It's obviously not the case.

NELSON: CEU's proponents say that's exactly what's at stake. As the international debate rages on, Orban allies are working to turn Hungarian public opinion against the university. One ally is Echo TV which recently aired this story.


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: (Speaking Hungarian).

NELSON: The narrator says CEU deceives its students and issues degrees not recognized by Hungary, neither of which are true. The Echo story features footage of American student Dana McKelvey of Richmond, Va., and her friends.

DANA MCKELVEY: It was really interesting because they only zoomed in on women that looked queer or had short hair or on people that were nonwhite. And from what I understand from a Hungarian friend of mine's translation, they were just saying, you know, look at these people who are polluting the Hungarian mentality. They do not belong here, and they are bringing these ideas into our space.

NELSON: The 25-year-old McKelvey says the attacks on CEU have made it hard to study.

MCKELVEY: People are actually making a joke that it's like "Harry Potter" right now, and that we should somehow have this special permission to push our exams back, to not have to worry about it.

NELSON: Professors, too, are concerned, and not just about classes, says Eva Fodor, the pro-rector for social sciences and humanities at CEU.

EVA FODOR: A lot of people are worried about their jobs and their families who would have to move or, you know, whose livelihood would be ending. This is the best team-building exercise that's ever existed because the whole community has come together.

NELSON: Fodor says the support they are getting from around the world is keeping the hope alive at the university that it will ultimately be spared. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Budapest. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.