I t was 3 am on Nov 25 and we were camping in Kossuth Square in front of the Hungarian Parliament. We were trying to keep dry in the freezing rain, and trying to save our university. I’m American, but I applied to Central European University because of the strength of its gender studies program and the faculty in my field of research (analysing nationalist recruitment techniques from a feminist perspective). Now the far-right government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban has cut gender studies from the approved list of degrees in Hungary.
“The Hungarian government is of the clear view that people are born either men or women,” the prime minister’s chief of staff said over the summer, and “does not wish to spend public funds on education in this area”. Worse, the university, which was founded by the Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros, is being driven out of the country. If the two sides can’t come to an agreement before Dec 1, the university will move to Vienna. I knew most of this before I decided to come in August. To my surprise, it was my nervous Jewish mother who encouraged me.
After all, she said, it’s becoming harder to identify a place where academic freedom and free expression aren’t under attack. The university doesn’t look under attack. Its halls are full of students clutching their books and sunken-eyed PhD students standing in line for coffee. But Orban’s party, Fidesz — which thrives by spreading propaganda and attacking civil society — sees the liberal university as a threat to its power. Last year, in a move that many argue deliberately targeted my university, Parliament passed a law dictating that foreign universities must have classes in their home countries in order to enrol students in Hungary.
Central European University complied by opening a program in New York, and yet Orban still refuses to sign the necessary paperwork. There are stickers emblazoned #aCEUvalvagyok (IAmWithCEU) everywhere, and a lot of university security guards, meaty men in black suits. To get to school, I have to walk beneath an anti-Soros billboard spray-painted with swastikas. In late October, students and faculty members were summoned to a gathering at which the university president announced the Dec. 1 deadline. The news was not a surprise. “What bothers me,” said my fellow student Szofi, “is the idea that we’re just going to leave without saying anything. That CEU is going to leave without a fight.” I didn’t want to leave without a fight. The following Tuesday I went to a classroom where a few other students and I rough-drafted the resistance on a whiteboard.
Over the next few weeks more people joined — students from other Hungarian universities, retirees, members of labor unions. I learned that the attempt to drive the university from the country was part of a larger plan to dismantle higher education in Hungary. Corvinus University of Budapest, for example, is being privatised, meaning it could lose all state funding and academic autonomy. We called a protest for Nov 24. Marchers arrived in droves. Some carried flags, others drums. There was a dog in a vest with the words “Nem hagyjuk” on it (“We won’t leave”). We chanted “Szabad orszag, szabad egyetem!” (“Free country, free university”). When the demonstration ended, we set up our tents.
Professors give class lectures, in English and Hungarian, in tents. At night we screen movies, play guitar and work on signs. We sleep in shifts, as Hungarian law dictates that a certain number of people must be actively sharing their opinions at all times or it isn’t a legal protest. We dance to stay awake. The professors were nervous about moving their classes to Kossuth Square. They worried about threats from right-wing groups like the neo-Nazi Betyarsereg, or Highwaymen’s Army, which claims to patrol the city streets in search of “degenerates.” Thankfully, there has been no real violence so far. One night, as we sat down to watch a documentary about Croatian anarchists, a man came in.
He joined in the discussion afterward. Suddenly he stood up and yelled, “I am the biggest anti-feminist in all of Hungary, and you cannot stop me!” Can we stop him, and what he stands for? Do we really think we’ll get the government to sign the agreement? The answer is no. Fidesz won’t change its mind just because some grad students discuss Marx in front of Parliament. What we’re doing is sending a message: We did something. We tried. On Nov 27, we had a special guest lecturer, the feminist theorist Joan Wallach Scott. So many bodies filled the tent that for once we didn’t need portable heaters.
She sat at a folding table and told us how to recognise a decline into despotism. “If they are allowed to take away education as the source of social and political renewal,” she said, “then we will all be done in by the authoritarian powers.” “Remember,” she said, “in numbers and union there is strength.”