Academic Freedom and the Central European University

Stephen Baskerville

“I felt that the [Central European] University in Prague did not have enough local support. On principle, I don’t want to inflict my philanthropy.”

—George Soros

When words are cheapened, principles are lost. This is now the case with “academic freedom,” currently claimed to be under threat in the closing of the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest. The CEU is not simply moving, let alone has it been “forced out,” as the media reports. It has failed at, or at least outlived, its original purpose of bringing Western higher education to the former Communist countries of East-Central Europe. In any case, it has not managed to establish itself as a valued institution (in a region where higher education is traditionally honored) to the point where anyone beyond the narrow constituency it immediately serves is willing to make the sacrifices required for it to remain.

Some of us who once had high hopes for the CEU have long since been disabused. The CEU was never more than an exercise in political engineering, offering degrees only in the politicized social sciences rather than the real sciences, as a serious university would do. From the start, the university’s mission was “teaching, research, and engagement” (my emphasis)—in other words, political activism. While the original intention may have been defensible in the post-Communist context, it is of questionable legitimacy today.

The Prague campus was closed in the early 1990s, and now the one in Budapest has officially moved to Vienna. In both instances billionaire founder George Soros engaged in bitter feuds with democratically elected local leaders when they balked at continuing to cover a portion of the costs: first the neo-liberal Czech Premier Vaclav Klaus and now the conservative Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. (A smaller campus in Warsaw also closed, also after refusals of government funding.) Relocating the CEU in Vienna is a clear admission of defeat. Yet rather than search within for the reasons that his institution keeps offending the local populations, the Soros-educated elites are posing as victims: claiming their “academic freedom” is being violated.

The closing of the CEU, as US Ambassador David Cornstein stated, “doesn’t have anything to do with academic freedom.” No one is being victimized because of his views in scholarship, teaching, or any other area. Western media reports have emphasized Soros’s outspoken activism on the issue of mass immigration and its criticism of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s policies as the primary, if unspoken, reason for the school’s closure.1 But these reports ignore the very real academic problems with the university’s programs, and the Hungarian government’s legitimate critique of them. The Hungarian government has decided that it will no longer use taxpayers’ money to fund fashionable but questionable novelties like “gender studies” that in its view and the view of many others are less scholarship or pedagogy than political ideology. Nothing prevents the CEU from pursuing whatever academic or political agendas it chooses, but it possesses no God-given right to force the Hungarian taxpayers to pay its bills. As one commentator in the liberal Inside Higher Education writes, “people who take it seriously are not being fined or imprisoned for advocating its ideas. So what is the big deal? Are gender studies entitled to public funding and recognition?” The Hungarian government stated that it “is of the clear view that people are born either men or women . . . but beyond this, the Hungarian state does not wish to spend public funds on education in this area.” The Hungarian government, in other words, acknowledges the widely accepted gender norms of the public it represents, and practices its fiduciary responsibility to ensure public monies are spent according to perceived need. A perfectly reasonable approach of a democratic government.

“This is a major infringement on academic freedom and university autonomy,” says the CEU. “Gender studies is an internationally recognized academic field, which produces socially relevant knowledge, and which has been taught at CEU for well over two decades. Eliminating this program will be a significant loss to the Hungarian scholarly community and for democratically-minded public policy makers.”

Two whole decades? Higher education in Central Europe goes back centuries, and gender studies is an import planted by Western ideologues that has no foundation in the region’s intellectual traditions. The universities of Central Europe were some of the finest in the world before the Communists got their hands on them, and the scholars there recognize much more readily than the parlor intellectuals of the Western academies that political fads like gender studies bear a much closer affinity with totalitarian Communist ideology than with their own academic traditions in the classical liberal arts.

Indeed, this debasement of the language and concept of academic freedom by the very scholars who should be elevating it contrasts sharply with real and damaging violations of academic freedom perpetrated in the name of precisely these same ideologies: sexual radicalism and gender ideology. It is significant that both sides have identified the dispute over gender studies as the line in the sand, for the politicization of sexuality by gender studies represents the most serious threat to academic freedom and the broader cultural and social traditions of Central and Eastern Europe. We should all be paying attention.

First, gender studies is political advocacy, not disinterested scholarship, whose purpose is to advance a political agenda. This is obvious, and evidenced by the alacrity with which the label “grievance studies” has been applied to it and its kindred disciplines by both academics and the popular press.2 Ostensibly objective scholars make no pretense of being other than active participants and promoters of what they should be studying critically and with detachment: “Women’s studies . . . is equipping women to transform the world to one that will be free of all oppression . . . a force which furthers the realization of feminist aims,” claims one manifesto.3 Panels at a conference of the National Women’s Studies Association include, “Feminist Activism from the Inside Out: Connecting Campus to Community,” and “How Feminist Pedagogy can Teach Resistance.”4

Further, this advocacy is funded by governments with a vested interest in increasing their own power. The agenda rationalizes government intervention into the private lives of non-criminal people who have no comparable platform to defend themselves from the measures being promoted by government-bankrolled scholars, institutions, and publications that readily describe themselves as players in a competitive game of “power.”

Not surprisingly, scholars who refrain from endorsing this agenda and insist on analyzing these subjects from a detached perspective find it almost impossible to publish their work and are quickly driven from the universities.

Gender studies is now virtually immune from criticism within the universities. There is virtually no scholar at any university in the Western world today whose research involves a critical analysis or detached appraisal of sexual ideology. “In 2014, there were more than 200 chairs for gender/queer studies, nearly all held by women, and around thirty interdisciplinary gender institutes.”5 But no academic scholar has produced any systematic critique that fundamentally challenges the truth or integrity of these ideological fields. (Steven Rhoads, now retired from the University of Virginia and author of the 2005 book, Taking Sex Differences Seriously, was a partial exception. KC Johnson of Brooklyn College, cited below, may be, along with Mark Regnerus, Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, the only ones left in publicly funded institutions whose research even remotely poses a challenge to gender studies’ ideological hegemony.)

In other words, we are being asked to believe that there is 100 percent unanimity in academia that feminist and homosexualist political agendas are simply matters of empirical exactitude, very much on the order of gravity in physics or carbon-containing compounds in organic chemistry.

Scholars who argue otherwise are almost all forced to work and publish outside the universities, where a string of recent critiques indicates that at least something is wrong with the new dogma that the academies refuse to confront: Gabriele Kuby, The Global Sexual Revolution: Destruction of Freedom in the Name of Freedom (2015); Jennifer Roback Morse, The Sexual Revolution and Its Victims (2015); Wendy McElroy, Rape Culture Hysteria: Fixing the Damage Done to Men and Women (2016); Helen Smith, Men on Strike: Why Men Are Boycotting Marriage, Fatherhood, and the American Dream—and Why It Matters (2013); KC Johnson and Stuart Taylor, The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America’s Universities (2017). I could name others. But within the academies, everyone knows that such publications would be career suicide and likely punished with dismissal.

Another partial exception that proves the rule is Laura Kipnis, whose Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus (2017) became the object of a Title IX suit with calls for her dismissal from Northwestern University. My own book, The New Politics of Sex: The Sexual Revolution, Civil Liberties, and the Growth of Governmental Power (2017) was possible only because I work in a college that is not government funded. “Professors watch as colleagues are terminated,” observes Wendy McElroy. “They self-censor to avoid a similar fate . . . Professors do not listen to logic but to the inner voice of caution about their own job security.”

Jay Belsky was driven from Pennsylvania State University when he began to dissent from feminist orthodoxy over the effects of institutionalized day care on children.6 Edward Green went from hero to villain at the Harvard School of Health when he transgressed the AIDS establishment’s orthodoxy by demonstrating that condoms have proven much less effective than campaigns encouraging sexual restraint. He himself explains his treatment ideologically: “The quickest way to kill criticism of condoms has been to suggest that religious belief, conservatism, bigotry, patriarchy, homophobia, or sexism has polluted the dissenter’s thinking.”

Here too, the exceptions starkly demonstrate the rule, because the few scholars bold enough to challenge or even analyze any single item on the radical sexual agenda feel they must first register their party affiliation and ideologically correct opinions on all the others, so toxic is it for any career to become visible on the wrong side.

“The author fully supports gender equality in all aspects of life,” announces one scholar in introducing his critique of the feminist rape industry in an ostensibly dispassionate law journal, imploring that his findings “not be confused with a lack of concern for the feminist ideals.” He pleads for understanding, knowing how likely his work is to be vetted ideologically: “Those who might be inclined to dismiss the author’s viewpoint or the remedy he advocates as insensitive to the needs of rape survivors or somehow anti-feminist should keep an open mind as they read.”7

In no other field of inquiry must scholars proclaim, at the outset of supposedly detached and apolitical works of scientific research, that they hold certain political opinions or subscribe to a particular political ideology in order to publish their professional research. “For the record, I am a lifelong, outspoken liberal-progressive leftist,” writes Green in his critique of gay-and feminist-dominated AIDS policy. “I have always supported reproductive rights and sexual freedom, and I spent many years working in contraception, family planning, and condom marketing. I am not an active adherent of any sect, denomination, or religion.” Green is appropriately ashamed for this verbal self-flagellation and admits, “I shouldn’t have to say these things, but such is the level of argument that some people judge one’s findings by one’s politics and vice versa.”8

In short, gender studies and related fields have already largely curtailed academic freedom in Western universities. When Daphne Patai and Noretta Koertge interviewed academic scholars for their critique of women’s studies programs, “Nearly every woman . . . requested that her name, affiliation and other identifying features be disguised.”9

Sexual radicals today are openly committed to censorship in universities and claim the authority of all women and other sexual “minorities” to support silencing others. “More women then [sic] men think universities should safeguard people of a particular gender, race, or sexuality against offensive views,” one ostensibly moderate feminist columnist writes in the Daily Telegraph. “Students with privilege . . . have the opportunity to learn . . . that after centuries of being in charge, it’s someone else’s turn.”

Stepping back to view this in the wider political context, the Hungarian government, along with that of Poland and other countries in Central Europe that dissent from the liberal agenda are now being excoriated for threatening the “rule of law” by the European Union (EU)—an institution so undemocratic that it does not meet the admissions standards it applies to member countries (and one that generously funds the CEU).

So perhaps what we are seeing in Central Europe today is an optical illusion. Perhaps it is the democratically elected Hungarian government that is truly the protector of academic freedom—and even of freedom generally—and the plutocratic empires of Soros and the EU that are trying to curtail it.

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