Features The Blue and White pin that matters

The founders of CEU, politicians, including PM Orban, had a common dream back then. That dream was that we would build a free and successful country where not party apparatchiks, but academics decide who can study at a university, and what institution can call itself a university.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2017: 1-2, p 30
Published on balticworlds.com on June 13, 2017

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In the 1980s, when I was in my early twenties, living and studying in communist Hungary, there was a blue and white pin which was cool to wear. That was the pin of the Danube circle (Duna Kör), the independent, oppositional circle founded in 1984 to fight against the planed dam on the Danube. Wearing this pin was not without political risks in the 1980s, but it was definitely ‘cool’. When I saw a colleague wearing it in the coffee shop of the university I immediately asked him where he got it, trying not to look very suspicious in asking, as I was sure the secret police also wanted to get that piece of information too.

History repeats itself in a strange way. In April 2017, the Hungarian government passed with extraordinary speed the Lex CEU which makes it impossible for CEU to operate in Hungary. The amendment to the higher education law requires, besides other clauses, that curriculum, hiring faculty, and recruitment be regulated directly by the Hungarian and US governments. The changes impose political control over one of the success institutions of European higher education. CEU was founded in 1991 to fight for freedom and to stand against such policing of ideas. From the minute the proposal became public on 28 March, 2017, resistance started. The resistance, which also included producing a blue pin, as blue is the official CEU color, with the slogan, written in white in two languages, “I stand with CEU”. The story of this pin very much resembles the story of the pin of my political socialization in the 1980s.

First, it is cool now again to wear that pin. People shout at you with a wide smile from the other side of the street, repeating the slogan “Free Country, Free University”, or “I stand with CEU”. Or they just ask you openly, even on the street, where they could get a pin. Luckily this is not classified information at the moment, as at the reception at the newly renovated campus of CEU in Budapest each person is given two pins. (Do not ask me why two, and not one or three, but that is the instruction from the administration.) By the end of April more than 10,000 pins were handed out there. Second, in spite of the overwhelming support, it is not necessarily safe to wear that pin in public. One of our graduates was recently hit in a bar, and the pin he was wearing was torn off his sweater. Another student while standing in the subway was astonished to see that an elderly man took out a pencil and started to rewrite the pin he was wearing on his chest. These stories show that the fight for freedom is a continuous fight. Freedom was the most important guiding principle of CEU’s founders in 1991. Those founders were Péter Hanák, Miklós Vásárhelyi, and György Litvánto, to name only those who are no longer with us. Those founders personally experienced direct political control and the policing of their ideas. The same freedom of thought is at stake now with the new higher education law which threatens the very existence of CEU.

As in the case of the Danube Circle, international support and contacts proved crucial to stop the construction of the dam, they are also crucial in the case of CEU. It is enough to look at all our alumni in the 117 countries where CEU students come from to study in Budapest, or the hundreds of international letters of support we have received, to see that the whole world is watching, helping, and supporting the resistance. From Pécs to Szeged, from Cambridge to Cluj or Singapore, our graduates are sending CEU letters and organizing protests. Several important Hungarian conservative intellectuals and state institutions have already expressed their solidarity with CEU, such as  the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

CEU’s mission statement declares its basic principles as the principles of open society. The Hungarian government communicated that these values are dividing Hungary or other nations of Europe along party lines. They are wrong. It is clear that the universal values of  liberty and democracy are at stake. If we are looking for models and allies, we look to Delhi, Johannesburg, London, and Berlin — whose struggles inspire us in our defense of academic freedom. CEU wants to become free, successful, and open to the world. This is a struggle that must be connected with solidarity and social justice.

In 1989, we had a common dream. The founders of CEU, politicians, including PM Orban, had a common dream back then. That dream was that we would build a free and successful country where not party apparatchiks, but academics decide who can study at a university, and what institution can call itself a university. A country where you do not need to wear a pin, but if you choose to do so, you do not meet violence and anger on the streets.This Lex CEU is the betrayal of our common dream, and the hopes of 1989 are being betrayed by Fidesz. They forget, but those who are wearing the blue “I stand with CEU” pin do not. And they are definitely more numerous than we were back in 1984. At least that can give us hope for the future. ≈

  • by Andrea Petö

    Professor at the Department of Gender Studies at Central European University in Budapest, Hungary, a Doctor of Science of Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Her works have appeared in 16 different languages. In 2005, she was awarded the Officer’s Cross Order of Merit of the Republic of Hungary by the President of the Hungarian Republic and the Bolyai Prize by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in 2006.

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