Soros-founded university opens new Vienna campus after Hungary forces it out

At ceremony, Jewish billionaire calls legal battle with Orban’s government ‘an epic struggle against a repressive regime,’ pledges $830 million more in funds to school

George Soros at the Joseph A. Schumpeter award ceremony in Vienna, Austria, June 21, 2019. (AP Photo/ Ronald Zak)
George Soros at the Joseph A. Schumpeter award ceremony in Vienna, Austria, June 21, 2019. (AP Photo/ Ronald Zak)

The Central European University, a private institution founded by philanthropist George Soros which was forced to relocate from Budapest last year over pressure from the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, officially opened its new Vienna campus on Friday.

Speaking at a ceremony in the Austrian capital, the Hungarian-American billionaire said the university will receive a major funding boost and link up with other progressive institutions around the world. He said his charitable foundation would commit 750 million euros ($830 million) to CEU.

“There’s no other university in Europe or the US that has been forced out on the political whim of a leader,” CEU’s rector Michael Ignatieff told the Guardian before the ceremony.

The university said it was forced to move its programs from Budapest to Austria because Hungary’s government refused to sign an agreement allowing it to stay, annulling its ability to issue US-accredited degrees.

According to a transcript of his speech, Soros called the legal battle with Orban’s government “an epic struggle against a repressive regime” and said CEU felt “morally obligated” to keep a presence in Hungary to support academic freedom in the country.

He added that the new Open Society University Network established together with US-based Bard College will be open to like-minded institutions globally.

Attracting students from over 100 countries and mainly offering US-accredited masters programs, CEU has long been regarded by the nationalist Orban as a hostile bastion of liberalism.

Protester march in support of Central European University in Budapest on November 24, 2018. (ATTILA KISBENEDEK / AFP)

Founded by Soros in 1991 and chartered in the US state of New York, the CEU says it was the target of a law passed April 2017 that placed tough requirements on foreign universities.

In recent years, Orban has blasted Soros as a “public enemy” for allegedly backing uncontrolled mass immigration, and has based his political campaigns on demonizing the businessman. Orban’s government has frequently been accused of using anti-Semitic tropes and imagery in its campaigns against Soros, claims it denies.

Hungary is also facing a so-called Article 7 procedure initiated by the European Parliament because of concerns about the rule of law, which the Hungarian government claims is motivated, as with practically any criticism it has received in the past four years, by its “zero tolerance” of migration, especially by Muslims.

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban delivers his speech at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France, September 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias)

The Jewish billionaire recently told the Guardian he believed the tide may be turning against recent years’ wave of global populism, and said of his vilification by right-wing leaders that he “must be doing something right.”

AFP contributed to this report.

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