Freedom is a common effort – A conversation between Jan Hennings, András Jakab and Zsolt Enyedi.

Freedom is a common effort – A conversation between Jan Hennings, András Jakab and Zsolt Enyedi.

How political must scholarship be in order to remain free? A conversation between our member Jan Hennings, constitutional scholar András Jakab and political scientist Zsolt Enyedi.

Jan Hennings: Academic freedom is protected under Article X, Paragraphs 1-3 of the Fundamental Law of Hungary. What does academic freedom mean to you personally?

Zsolt Enyedi (ZE): For me, it means the freedom to search for the truth and the opportunity to share my knowledge with students, regardless of whether this knowledge is in agreement with the government or the particular beliefs of politicians. This is the kind of freedom to which every single scholar is entitled. Given that the production of knowledge is also institutionally anchored, academic freedom also includes institutional autonomy. In order to fulfil their mission of creating knowledge, institutions must remain free from party-political interference.

András Jakab (AJ): Fundamentally, I agree. Conceptually, one might differentiate between the institutional aspect and the individual freedom of scholars, but the latter is itself based on institutional autonomy. This includes not only protection from direct partisan political interference, but also quite practical things such as, for example, secure and predictable funding for research and teaching, and the guarantee that institutions may independently regulate their own affairs and procedures. Thus, the freedom of the individual in research and teaching and the financial and procedural autonomy of universities belong together. 

Academic freedom is not a privilege of individuals or institutions. Rather, it is a constitutionally protected right that lies in the interest of society—for the common good. How does society benefit from academic freedom?

AJ: To justify academic freedom, a consequentialist argument is often cited, according to which academic freedom is the precondition for the successful pursuit of truth and knowledge. At the same time there are doubts as to whether such a results-oriented justification is sufficient to legitimise academic freedom as a condition for original and innovative research. For example, if we look at mathematics research in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, it is apparent that Soviet scholars conducted research at the highest possible level in this field. Institutional autonomy is, then, not necessarily a precondition for cutting-edge research, and the consequentialist argument is obviously inadequate to legitimise academic freedom in general. Another approach argues that academic freedom is a value in and of itself. Academic literature discusses at great length, for example, to what extent universities are part of an institutional framework that guarantees the separation of powers. Surely this is the case, but, apart from universities, there are more efficient institutions that hold politicians and decision-makers accountable, thus retaining the separation of powers. In my view, academic freedom in the institutional sense is important because we need institutions that promote critical thinking as the foundation of a society in which we would like to live.  

This means that the legal definition of academic freedom is simply the expression of a fundamental societal good, which in turn is based on public consensus?

ZE: Yes. This is the reason why, in a democratic country, it is the shared responsibility of both holders of political office and scholars to think about the purpose of science and scholarship, and to decide on financial support of research in a way that benefits society. The protection of independent critical thinking forms an important part of this consensus.

AJ: Of course, there is also the expectation—and it is a justified one—that research should serve the people. The problem arises when a society places the usefulness of research in the interest of the people above the value of academic freedom. Take the Communist Constitution of 1949, for example, which explicitly stated that the Hungarian People’s Republic would only support research if it served the working class. By the way, this also applied to the arts which the Constitution viewed as valuable only when it represented the struggle and victories of the working class. History has shown that a constitutionally mandated parameter that sets ideological goals above freedom of the arts and sciences leads down a dangerous path. 

Who guarantees academic freedom? Politicians, the law, society, or scholars?

AJ: Everyone who takes part in the process contributes to the protection of this freedom. One can write wonderful laws about higher education that look great on paper, when in reality academic freedom may not exist at all. And sometimes the specifications of the legal framework are flawed, but the general political culture protects academic freedom nevertheless. Societal freedoms are only sustainable through a common effort of the different participants.

Professor Enyedi, for you as the Pro-Rector for Hungarian Affairs at Central European University (CEU), the question of who should stand up for academic freedom seems particularly relevant. In April 2017, the Hungarian Parliament adopted changes to the higher education law. The public quickly called this legal novella “Lex CEU,” because it was seen by many as a direct attack on this particular university. The law stipulated conditions for foreign universities operating in Hungary which only CEU could not possibly fulfil in the given timeframe. How do these experiences with CEU fit in with the more general developments in Hungary, especially with respect to the question of academic freedom?

ZE: Since the beginning of the Orbán government in 2010, we have witnessed, in general, a strong interventionist trend throughout the state. In educational policy, anything that does not serve industrial development is being neglected. Large amounts of money were withdrawn from education. The government takes the view that there are too many Hungarian citizens with university degrees. In fact, the number of graduates with university degrees is on the decline. The official school-leaving age was lowered from 18 to 16 years. There were also curriculum changes that came at the expense of the humanities and social sciences. Official, standardised textbooks were introduced. The government began to meddle in the leadership of universities; in one case, a university was forced to hire a particular new rector although its administration had chosen a different candidate for the post. In general, we are witnessing a drastic centralisation and politicisation of education and research, as well as a decline in material resources for schools, universities, and the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.


„Fundamental freedoms have been on the decline for the past few years, during which time education and research have been one of many areas targeted in Hungary“    András Jakab


Professor Jakab, is it still the responsibility of political decision-makers to shape education and research policy in this way? Or do you already see what Professor Enyedi describes as a sign of an emerging or existing threat to academic freedom in Hungary?

AJ: I think that fundamental freedoms have been on the decline for the past few years, during which time education and research have been one of many areas targeted in Hungary. The country has become increasingly centralised and interventionist in all possible areas, for example also in local self-administration.

Has this resulted in direct restrictions in teaching and research?

AJ: There have been a number of specific developments in Hungary that are indeed worrying, such as the continuous weakening of institutional autonomy. However, we must also remember what has not happened, yet; when someone publishes a critical scholarly essay, one does not risk losing one’s position at the university. Such drastic intrusions into the work of scholars have – as far as I know – not occurred. We need to clearly differentiate the case of Hungary from academic systems outside the EU where academic freedom has also come under fire or been limited, for example in Turkey. On an individual level, I am not aware of any cases of direct repression. However, when it comes to the freedom and independence of institutions, the politically enforced undermining of academic freedom in Hungary could not be clearer, be that the meddling in university affairs, the appointment of leadership posts in higher education, or Lex CEU.

Lex CEU caused quite a stir worldwide. How do you explain the outpouring of support that the university experienced?

ZE: CEU is a US-registered institution that is located in the European Union. The university is accredited in both New York State and Hungary. We teach students and employ professors from more than one hundred countries. But I do not think that the institutional composition of our university explains the enormous international support that we witnessed in the public reaction to Lex CEU. Scholars are very well connected around the world and share great solidarity across political and ideological divides when academic freedom is at stake. Additionally, despite its legal pretext, Lex CEU was obviously politically motivated, and it is not that common these days for a government to attack a university on political grounds, especially not within the EU. The situation in which the change to the law came along with deadlines that would have been impossible for the university to meet made the event look much more dramatic than many other developments that are happening in Hungary. As someone who works at CEU, I am deeply impressed by the clear public rejection of Lex CEU, but we should not look at this as an isolated case. Personally, I think that the current transformations of the Hungarian constitutional order have more far-reaching consequences than whatever happens to CEU. Of course, what happened with CEU represents a clear breach of academic freedom in Hungary and in the EU, but there are political dynamics in the country that merit even more attention. Perhaps CEU has become so central in public debates because the impossible deadlines made the case particularly dramatic. Liberal and constitutional democracy in Hungary is on the backfoot, but this is a long and complex process. The change in the higher education law, however, is a concrete case and is seen to affect the scholarly community as a whole. CEU may lose its licence to operate in Hungary if, by January 2019, the government does not sign the international agreement which it had negotiated with the State of New York. This specific legal constellation bears witness to a particular effect that has garnered more attention than other developments.


„What is happening in Hungary is part of the struggle for democracy as we know it“    Zsolt Enyedi


In other words, in certain circumstances, the threat to academic freedom has the potential to generate more solidarity worldwide than other, perhaps more dire worries about the state of democracy?

ZE: Yes, because in liberal democratic societies, academic freedom remains a core element of democracy across the entire political spectrum. If you look at how a state defines its relationship to the church, or how it solves potential conflicts between the right to privacy and public security, there arises a space for many legitimate interpretations. Different countries approach these questions differently. The value of academic freedom, however, is recognised and remains upheld without much debate among different political groups and across national borders.

What is the explanation for this, that different societies recognise the value of academic freedom across national borders?

AJ: I think there are two reasons for this. On the one hand, in many societies, universities remain safe havens for free and critical thinking. When politics, or even partisan politics, undermines the independence of the procedures of a country’s institutions, then that is bad enough. When, however, such a safe and sacred place of free thinking is directly attacked—when a university comes under political pressure—the symbolic effect, and with it international perception, becomes much stronger. On the other hand, to return to the example of CEU, as a jurist I maintain that Lex CEU is quite obviously unconstitutional, which three colleagues and I have attested in an amicus brief which we have sent to the Hungarian constitutional court. And we have not even begun to speak about the international human rights conventions and European legal norms which Lex CEU also violates. It can also be said, then, that it was the obvious illegality of the changes to the higher education law that resulted in an international outcry.

Are the events in Hungary a local matter?

ZE: I think it is a global problem. What is happening in Hungary is part of the struggle for democracy as we know it. The Hungarian government sees itself as the pinnacle of a movement that many view as a setback to constitutional law and the separation of powers, but also against European integration. The government likes to position itself in a leading role in the nationalistic and authoritarian camp, and in this vein seems to be in harmony with developments in other parts of Europe—both East and West! There is also another aspect. The government considers this to be a part  of its mandate to wage a Culture War, or Kulturkampf. If you look, for example, at reports in the Hungarian press about Lex CEU, a substantial portion of the articles are about the Gender Studies Department. We are talking about a small department whose scholarly output does not really differ from the kind of work being done in the field at other universities. However, the department has been accused of propagating a value system that rejects Christian norms and traditional family values. Accusations like this cast scholarly research in a bad light in order to provoke a cultural conflict. The government uses such denigrations as a political signal in order to mark the boundaries between political camps and to show which side of the spectrum they are on, while caring little about the content of the actual research and teaching.

What role does academic freedom play in this?

ZE: Academic freedom creates space for discussion and different positions; positions based on empirical evidence and critical thinking and not on political loyalties or the interests of particular groups. When a government supports a discourse whose goal is to politicise scholarship and brand particular research and teaching as morally unacceptable, then this presents a danger to the freedom of scholarship.

AJ: The case of CEU has become an affair on an international scale because of its symbolic character. Academic freedom works similarly to societal taboos. If a person breaks a taboo in one place, then that taboo also weakens in other places. When it becomes possible that a European government breaches academic freedom, as in the case of Lex CEU in Hungary, people rightly start to worry about the implication of such a violation for the state of academic freedom across Europe.  When something like this happens in one country, then academic freedom is at risk of eroding in other parts of the scholarly community as well. Because of this symbolic value, the entire scholarly community feels as though they themselves are being addressed when academic freedom is endangered.

Can one say that CEU has become a sort of projection ground for the worries and fears of European or Western scholarly communities?

AJ: This is certainly the case in the international setting. But in Hungary we also witnessed large protests in solidarity with CEU. Most of the demonstrators had little previous experience with this university. They protested because they sensed the symbolic meaning of an attack on the university, and with it recognised the possible consequences for themselves.

CEU never tires of emphasising that the university is an institution of higher learning and free and critical research, and not a political organisation—neither a think tank nor an NGO. And yet, there remains a general expectation that members of the scholarly community stand up for their right to academic freedom. How political must scholarship be in order to remain free?

ZE: If one does not stand up for one’s rights, one must not wonder when these rights are being taken away. Any sector of society will understandably protest against discriminatory regulations and legal processes that threaten the existence of an institution. And yet, from the beginning, CEU has sought co-operation with the authorities and called for negotiations with government leaders to solve the crisis brought about by the changes in the higher education law. The university administration consciously decided not to mount an official demonstration or endorse one institutionally, so as not to provoke the government. When people took to the streets in April 2017, this was organised by other Hungarian universities out of solidarity. The people in Budapest and other university towns demonstrated an incredible sensitivity to the question of academic freedom. The slogan of the demonstrators was: “Free Country – Free University,” shouted by tens of thousands, many of whom had never been to university, others of whom were school children whose studies lay before them. It was clear that the engagement on behalf of academic freedom showed the strong commitment to freedom in and of itself.

AJ: The commitment to academic freedom is a political statement, the goal of which being that we should be allowed to discuss scholarly and scientific positions freely. Such a commitment absolutely does not mean that someone has a partisan political agenda. That is an important distinction.

To what extent is the politicisation of scholarship a threat to academic freedom?

ZE: When scholars contribute insights to political discussions based on their research, they risk alienating parts of society if their scholarly conclusions appear incompatible with the political opinions of such people. An example from public discourse is the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, which repeatedly rejects certain myths about Hungarian history or language that have enjoyed great popularity, especially with the extreme right. As a result, the Academy finds itself confronted with attacks in which its members are stigmatised as “leftists” or “anti-national” actors hiding themselves behind their research methods. Some people have even demanded a new Academy that produces research findings more in line with public opinion. If these kinds of debates continue, the Academy will be stuck into the “left-liberal” corner in the public perception whether they want to be or not, and the societal authority of scholarship and the entire academic world will be affected by politicisation. As a result, an increasing number of people feel justified in bringing scientific findings such as evolution into question. This is dangerous. Politicians should not embroil academic institutions in political disputes. But when this happens, academics have no choice but to not budge when it comes to empirical evidence and scientific knowledge. The current controversy about the Academy shows yet another pattern of politicisation; the government recently introduced a plan that drastically reduces the Academy’s budget and re-appropriates the money to a newly-founded Ministry for Innovation and Technology. The President of the Academy of Sciences was given less than an hour to read the draft and comment on it.


„There needs to be an independent entity that can verify what constitutes fact“   András Jakab


Parallel to this, a weekly magazine favoured by the government published a list with Academy members who work on themes which the magazine portrayed to be useless to society, for example research about minorities such as the Roma, or questions about gender or xenophobia. It is said that the government wants to restructure research funding to better support innovation and the interests of industry, but even such problematic—albeit potentially legitimate—ambitions are packaged in this sort of Kulturkampf rhetoric.*

A public discourse that shakes the foundation of evidence and facts and relativizes the role of scholarship altogether presents a very different kind of threat to academic freedom from that of direct intervention in institutional autonomy, research and teaching. What does this mean for society in the long run?

AJ: When people claim that scholarly and scientific institutions are politically biased and therefore should not be taken seriously, then this calls the entire epistemological foundations of democracy into question.

What is the value of academic freedom in the age of “fake news”?

ZE: There is more at stake than usual. Until recently, the trust in science and evidence-based research was taken for granted, and so was a culture of debate in which a person can take his or her adversary seriously and respect his or her worth. Today though, when one can not only belittle and insult one’s opponent with a single Tweet, but also negate facts and encourage people to believe in an “alternative reality”, it is even more important to intervene with arguments that make the difference between facts and non-facts clear. In this situation, the relevance of academic freedom is more acute than ever.

Because the societal recognition of freedom and independence of scholarship guarantees the status of facts and knowledge?

AJ: With the abundance of information accessible to us today, there needs to be a recognised, independent entity that can verify what constitutes fact in order to differentiate fact from political opinion. Universities make a significant contribution in this respect. But they can only fulfil this function if they can enjoy academic freedom to its fullest.

[Revised and translated from the German.]


* On the state of scholarship in Hungary and particularly the situation concerning the Academy of Sciences, see the editorial in the science journal Nature from 26 June 2018.

András Jakab is Professor of Constitutional and Administrative Law at the University of Salzburg. From 2013-2017 he served as Director of the Legal Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

Zsolt Enyedi is Professor of Political Science and Pro-Rector for Hungarian Affairs at Central European University Budapest.

Jan Hennings is Associate Professor of History at Central European University Budapest and has been a member of the Junge Akademie since 2016.

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