Petition: CEU must maintain its presence in Budapest as CEU!

We, the undersigned alumni and friends of Central European University, hereby express our deep concern about the closing down of Közép-európai Egyetem, the Hungarian entity of Central European University, and especially about the plan to “uncouple” CEU Budapest from CEU Vienna. 

Based on a strategic paper signed by Jeremy Adelman (Princeton University) and Geoffrey W. Smith (Chair of the Central European University Board of Trustees), the Board of Trustees, in conjunction with the Vienna-based leadership of CEU, will formally initiate the withdrawal of the operating license of Közép-európai Egyetem, the Hungarian entity of CEU, and the Hungarian government will submit a bill to that effect to parliament. The move will no doubt be met with jubilation in anti-democratic circles, including in the United States, where presidential elections will take place on November 5, 2024. It will also substantiate the false narrative of the Hungarian government that CEU was not forced to close its teaching programs in Budapest but chose to leave the country on its own accord.

Hungary is a small country at the periphery of Europe, which has become a model for populist would-be autocrats worldwide, including Donald J. Trump. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán calls Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Alexander Lukashenko his friends. He has dismantled Hungarian democracy, turned Budapest into the global capital of illiberalism, and created a system based on state-driven corruption. Internationally, he sabotages the European Union’s efforts to support Ukraine. He is weakening NATO and the European Union, and is a threat to this world order based on the respect of international law and internationally recognized state borders.

CEU’s continuous divesting from Hungary constitutes not only a withdrawal from the fight against an autocrat at war with the ideals and mission of CEU. Even without its degree programs, which are now in Vienna, CEU’s Budapest-based research infrastructure and international student mobility (including the hosting and support of persecuted students and scholars from across the globe), make it the last independent higher education institution in the country. Abandoning Budapest and the Budapest campus of CEU will send a globally resounding message about the self-inflicted defeat of the defenders of Open Society. 

We call upon the Board of Trustees of CEU to reflect on its decision to initiate the closing down of Közép-európai Egyetem and reconsider the recommendation to “uncouple” CEU Budapest from CEU Vienna. Much more importantly, Central European University must maintain its “strong presence” in Budapest, as repeatedly vowed by the current and previous Rector and President, and by Mr. Alex Soros, Chair of the Board of Directors of the Open Society Foundations. 

The Founder of this university established CEU and committed immense personal effort and wealth to the mission of opening up higher education in Central and Eastern Europe, and more generally, to his fight for the ideals and principles of Open Society. In the context of the war in Ukraine and the global attack on universities and academic freedom, strengthening these values in the region is more important than ever. We, alumni and friends of CEU, are proud to share, and committed to fight for, these values and principles. No Rector and President, and indeed, no Board of Trustees, should shy away from continuing this fight in Hungary, the home of Central European University, and one of the main battlegrounds in the cultural war between the forces of democracy and illiberalism worldwide.

We need your help to spread the word, and we need it fast. Please share this petition via LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, email, etc. If you are an alumna/alumnus, forward this link to your class AND to your national alumni chapter. Consider expressing your personal view by leaving a comment. Thank you.


Central European University (CEU) was founded in 1991 with the mission to bring democratic values and spirit to higher education in Central and Eastern Europe. It offered wide-ranging programs in the humanities, social sciences, business, law, as well as cognitive and network science to students from formerly Communist countries, gradually extending its student body with the aim of defending the values of Open Society throughout the world. It has since remained true to its mission until, in April 2017, the Hungarian Parliament modified the 2011 Higher Education Law to force CEU out of Hungary. In 2019, CEU moved its degree programs with American accreditation to Vienna. In 2020, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that “lex CEU” was illegal. In 2022, Hungarian accreditation for CEU’s former programs offered in Budapest expired. CEU has not applied for a further five-year extension.  

There are currently three academic units at CEU Budapest, in addition to administrative units supporting operations in both Budapest and Vienna: the CEU Institute for Advanced Studies, the Democracy Institute, and the Vera and Donald Blinken Open Society Archives at CEU. CEU Budapest runs the award-winning Invisible University for Ukraine, which since the beginning of Putin’s war on Ukraine has taught courses to almost 1000 Ukrainian students, involving hundreds of faculty from across Europe and beyond. The CEU Istvan Bibo Free University, which has thus far welcomed over 6000 debate participants and offered 23 courses given by over 130 lecturers, focuses on the examination of society and politics in Hungary and in the European Union. CEU Budapest’s Borderless Knowledge program brings together foremost experts in various scientific disciplines with the general public eager to explore recent scientific breakthroughs and their direct impact on our everyday lives. The Budapest CEU Summer University has attracted thousands of students and offered 490 courses in a wide variety of disciplines since its establishment in 1996 (European students receive ECTS credits for the courses attended). The CEU Library in Budapest, which also welcomes non-CEU patrons, is the largest English-language library of the region, offering state-of-the-art study spaces and access to online scholarly journals that are not available in many universities of the region. Finally, the CEU Residence Center is the home of Hungarian and international students away from home, including student refugees from Ukraine and students of Free SZFE, a free university association set up in response to the attack on the autonomy and academic freedom of Budapest’s University of Theatre and Film Arts (SzFE). All these constitute evidence that CEU Budapest faculty and staff have the willingness and the capacity to react to new political and social challenges in an academically appropriate way, and that CEU Budapest has the capability to continuously renew itself by refining and adjusting the unique mission of CEU to the necessities of our time.

The Open Society Foundations (OSF), which are the largest funder of CEU, have recently commissioned a strategic paper on The Future of CEU. Its authors, Jeremy Adelman and Geoffrey W. Smith (the latter is also the Chair of the Board of Trustees of CEU), assert that “[t]he conditions that inspired George Soros at CEU’s founding and that gave the University its purpose and place no longer exist”. They also recommend the “uncoupling [of] CEU and Budapest.”

We believe that this is utterly wrong. Members of the CEU Board of Trustees must understand that threats to the higher education landscape worldwide, including in the United States—from curriculum changes to the “anti-woke” madness to the tendency to appoint politically connected university administrators—originate from minds like Viktor Orbán’s, if not, indeed, from Viktor Orbán himself. The educational institution of the regime, Mathias Corvinus Collegium, which is a hotbed of such ideas, and which has an endowment of 2 billion dollars and educates 7000 students in Hungary, has just bought a university in Austria, and serves as a meeting place and training ground for Trumpist and Putinist journalists and political activists, including Tucker Carlson and Christopher Rufo.

In March 2023, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán dispatched the President of Hungary to meet Governor Ron DeSantis in Florida. Days later, Christopher Rufo, whom DeSantis had just appointed to the Board of New College of Florida, spent one month in Budapest as a fellow of the Danube Institute, a conservative think-tank and research institute. Just days after his return to the US, on May 15, 2023, Governor DeSantis signed three bills into law to limit academic freedom across colleges and universities in Florida, including a ban on certain topics taught at institutions of higher education and the easing of the rules of firing and replacing tenured teaching staff. On August 11, 2023, Christopher Rufo declared: “Public universities are not a ‘free marketplace of ideas.’”

Hungary’s export of “illiberalism” also constitutes a more general and global threat. A pariah among democratic leaders, Viktor Orbán campaigns on US soil for the election of a candidate with an unprecedented record of four criminal indictments (and ninety-one felony charges, including for attempting to overturn a democratic election). Just recently, Viktor Orbán paid a visit to Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago and held talks in Washington, D.C., with the leadership of the Heritage Foundation, without having included in his busy schedule a single meeting with US officials. The New York Times has just revealed that Jair Bolsonaro, who is also sought by prosecutors for conspiring to overturn the results of an election, was given temporary sanctuary at the Hungarian Embassy in Brasília. The Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Péter Szíjjártó, is a frequent guest in Moscow, giving legitimation to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

We cannot but feel shocked about the false assertion that “the conditions that inspired George Soros at CEU’s founding and that gave the University its purpose and place no longer exist.” Their essence is more plainly visible today than it was back in the early 1990s! 

Unsurprisingly, and after years of apparent onlooking, on March 14, 2024, the American Ambassador to Hungary gave a historic speech in Budapest. Of all places, he chose to deliver his long-awaited keynote address announcing a major shift in US policy towards Hungary at the Budapest campus of Central European University. Ambassador David Pressman said: “While Hungary attempts to wait out those it disagrees with, whether in the United States or in the European Union, the rest of the world is moving forward. While the Orbán government may want to wait out the United States government, the United States will certainly not wait out the Orbán administration. While Hungary waits, we will act.”  

We believe that “uncoupling” KEE Budapest from CEU Vienna and closing it down, as recommended by the Adelman and Smith Report, at such a crucial time and without an imperative to do so, is a grave mistake that will impoverish CEU Vienna as well. Formally requesting the withdrawal of KEE’s license from the Hungarian government without even being called to do so (or without being required by law), will overshadow the fight this university has waged against Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal democracy” since 2017, and indeed, for much longer than that. The government-controlled media will cheer about such a move and use it in its propaganda against democratic forces in Hungary and in the world—including us, alumni and friends of CEU. CEU and all it stood for up until now will become the laughingstock of worldwide higher education. 

We cannot let this happen, and neither should the Board of Trustees of CEU. The credibility of our joint fight to reopen our ever more closed societies, and indeed the very concept and reality of open society, are at stake. Thousands of students and scholars from the region, now under threat by Vladimir Putin, have studied and taught at CEU, and many are now defending open society in their home countries, including in Russia. Let us be clear: Our standing up for CEU’s presence in Budapest is not rooted in nostalgia. On the contrary: CEU Budapest has a strategic role to play if we are to take seriously the fight for academic freedom and for democratic freedoms more broadly. If CEU and the vision of its Founder have contributed to our readiness to fight for this cause today, we cannot let the leadership and the Board of this university abandon this fight by “uncoupling” the CEU units functioning today in Budapest from CEU Vienna, thus exposing them further to the mercy of Viktor Orbán. We therefore call on all fellow alumni and friends of CEU throughout the world to join in our effort to stop this by signing this petition.