Soros-backed university in Hungary partly moving to Vienna

FILE - In this April 9, 2017 file photo demonstrators hold posters as they protest against the efforts to close Central European University, as part of Prime Minister Viktor Orban's plan to transform Hungary in Budapest, Hungary. Central European University says it will move its U.S.-accredited programs from Hungary’s capital of Budapest to the Austrian capital of Vienna because of uncertainty over its academic freedom. (Janos Marjai/MTI via AP, file)
FILE - In this Thursday, June 8, 2017 file photo, Hungarian-American investor and CEU founder George Soros attends a press conference at the Foreign Ministry in Berlin, Germany. Central European University says it will move its U.S.-accredited programs from Hungary’s capital of Budapest to the Austrian capital of Vienna because of uncertainty over its academic freedom. (AP Photo/Ferdinand Ostrop, file)

BUDAPEST, Hungary — Academic freedom in Hungary came under question Thursday as Central European University said it will move its U.S.-accredited programs from Budapest to the Austrian capital of Vienna because of the "uncertain" academic environment in Hungary.

The government called the university's announcement "a political ploy" to discredit the nation.

The university's fate is seen as collateral damage from the ideological struggle between Prime Minister Viktor Orban's nationalistic, anti-immigrant government and the founder of CEU, Hungarian-American billionaire and philanthropist George Soros.

Orban's government has conducted massive billboard and media campaigns against Soros and his "Open Society" pro-democratic stance, blaming him for Europe's migrant crisis, a charge that Soros denies.

The 88-year-old Soros has also been criticized by U.S. President Donald Trump and vilified by right-wing conspiracy theorists. On Monday, a bomb was found in a mailbox at Soros' suburban New York home.

Central European University, which Soros founded in 1991, has said for months that it has complied with a host of new requirements for it to remain in Budapest. But the university said Thursday it has been kept in "legal limbo" by Orban's government, which has refused to sign an agreement needed for CEU to remain in Hungary.

Changes to Hungary's higher education law in 2017 were seen as mainly targeting CEU, which is chartered in New York State but did not conduct educational activities there, one of the new requirements. CEU has since established educational programs with New York's Bard College.

"Nonetheless, the Hungarian authorities have indicated that they would not sign the New York State agreement," the university said Thursday in a statement. "All attempts to find a solution that would enable CEU to remain as a U.S. degree-granting institution in Budapest have failed."

Incoming students in CEU's masters and doctoral programs will start studying at the Vienna campus in the 2019-2020 academic year, while students already enrolled may remain in Budapest to complete their degrees.

Orban's government derided the announcement as "a Soros-style political ploy."

"Up to now, CEU has operated here, it does so now, and we think that it will continue to do so in the future," said a statement from Orban's Cabinet office. "The Hungarian government does not concern itself with Soros's political ploys."

CEU students, meanwhile, were dismayed by the development.

"I think (CEU) has actually added value to Hungary," said finance major Alexandra Ivanova from Ukraine. "I think Vienna is going to be way more expensive for students and I think not that many students will be applying there, just because they can't afford living in the city."

The university's board of trustees authorized the move as of Dec. 1, 2018, which CEU President and Rector Michael Ignatieff said meant there's still time to reach a last-minute deal.

"Even at this late hour, we are still seeking a solution that allows us to remain in Budapest as a free institution," Ignatieff told reporters.

David Cornstein, the U.S. Ambassador to Hungary, who has been talking with the Hungarian government to try to finalize the agreement, made CEU the destination of one of his first official visits after arriving in Hungary this summer. He the CEU was a "priority" for the U.S. government.

"I understand CEU's position — prolonged uncertainty is not sustainable for an academic institution," Cornstein said in a statement. "I am working with both parties to continue the negotiations and find an acceptable resolution before Dec. 1."

Orban's enmity toward Soros comes even after he himself received a scholarship from Soros in the late 1980s. Orban's Fidesz party also received aid from Soros' foundations before the end of communism in Hungary in 1990.

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