Academic freedom is an important pillar of open societies, but two panelists worry that aspects of it are now being targeted both globally and in the U.S.
The panelists at Wednesday’s Samuel L. and Elizabeth Jodidi Lecture, sponsored by the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, agreed that the struggle to sustain the principle in the near future may be tougher than in the past, but each panelist brought a different slant to the issue.
During the session, called “Insidious Threats to Academic Freedom in the U.S. and Abroad,” Michael Ignatieff, president of Central European University in Budapest and an associate at Harvard’s Center for European Studies, discussed the problems his institution faces — the “straight-on, in your face, boom-boom” threats, as he characterized them. And Craig Calhoun, president of the Los Angeles-based Berggruen Institute, spoke of more-insidious threats, the philosophical and cultural changes that can undermine academic freedom less overtly.
As president of an American academic institution in Hungary, Ignatieff faces conflict with the government there. As relayed by moderator Michèle Lamont, the Weatherhead’s director and Robert I. Goldman Professor of European Studies and professor of sociology and of African and African American Studies, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has an “obsession” with the university’s founder, the Hungarian-American investor and philanthropist George Soros. Orban is currently running for re-election on a “stop Soros” platform that blames him for a wave of immigration into Hungary. This, said Ignatieff, amounts to a “systematic mystification of the real.” For example, the prime minister’s campaign has suggested that Hungary’s Christian civilization is threatened by Muslim immigration, yet there are only about 2,000 Muslims in all of Hungary.
“What are we to make of a place like Hungary?” Ignatieff asked. The answer, he said, is not simple, as traditional definitions of “open” and “closed” societies do not apply neatly there. Budapest has a free press, and citizens are free to leave the country or return. This suits oligarchs who are free under such policies to deposit their money in other parts of Europe.