⛓️ The chilling dismissal of Hungarian academic Zoltán Ádám

Hungarian universities are facing increasing interference from government. The recent dismissal of Zoltán Ádám from Corvinus University in Budapest thus signals a worrying erosion of academic autonomy. For Gábor Halmai, Balázs Majtényi, and Andrew Richard Ryder, Ádám's dismissal reflects a pattern. They argue that a broader political agenda is threatening academic freedom, and raising questions about Hungary’s democratic integrity

The dismissal of Zoltán Ádám

Zoltán Ádám, an associate professor at Corvinus University Budapest, recently refused to examine a student who allegedly failed to meet essential requirements. Following a subsequent dispute with university leaders, Ádám is now facing dismissal.

The family of the student in question wields considerable influence through its stake in the Hungarian energy giant MOL. Coincidentally, MOL president Zsolt Hernádi heads the foundation that has overseen Corvinus University since 2019.

In response to the exam irregularities, Ádám alerted the university's ethics committee. In the first instance, the committee condemned three university leaders, and the rector later resigned. However, the committee’s ruling was later overruled by the university's board of trustees. Corvinus initiated further investigations in relation to the irregular exam procedure, which led to Ádám’s dismissal for alleged 'uncooperative behaviour'. Ádám denies the claims, but admits to a less-than-cordial tone.

Academic autonomy

The integrity of a university’s ethics procedure is an indicator of its ability to check wrongdoing. It is the moral bedrock of an educational institution. The Zoltán Ádám affair confirms growing fears about the state of academic freedom in Hungary.

The Orbán administration has transformed twenty-one universities into 'foundations' controlled by government supporters who dominate the boards of trustees

Corvinus University is one of the twenty-one universities that the government has transformed from public entities into foundations. These foundations are controlled by close supporters of the government, who dominate the boards of trustees. Some fear a deep state has been formed, based on ideological loyalty to Viktor Orbán. The European Union has serious concerns about the erosion of academic freedom in Hungary. It has prevented foundation universities from accessing Erasmus and Horizon funding and, more widely, it has frozen Hungary’s full access to cohesion funds because of general rule of law violations.

Orbán’s agenda

Why is Orbán so intent on gaining control of Hungarian universities? He is aware that a growing number of young people are repulsed by his radical-right populism, and this weakens his grip on Hungary's future direction. The transformation of universities into foundations that are closely aligned with Orbán's principles is a crude attempt to reorient the mindset of Hungary’s young intelligentsia.

Orbán is aware that a growing number of young people are repulsed by his radical-right populism, and this weakens his grip on Hungary's future direction

Universities are an important check and balance. They provide a fulcrum of dissent when democracy is subverted, another reason Orbán is fearful of universities’ autonomy.

Many democratic social movements across the globe originated in universities. Hungary is no exception.

Students were important supporters in the 1848/9 Hungarian uprising against Austrian (Habsburg) rule. They were also involved in the 1956 rising against the state-socialist dictatorship, when academic freedom figured as an important aspiration. And a key aspect of Hungary’s embrace of democracy after the collapse of state socialism was its nurturing of academic freedom from 1990 to 2010. This process was subverted by the advent of the current Orbán administration. Ever since coming to power in 2010, Orbán has been relentless in undermining democratic safeguards and the independence of the judiciary and media.

Architects of the future

Recent events at Corvinus suggest Hungary is drifting back to its authoritarian past. While scattered protests have occurred, a broader lack of unity in academia and society hinders effective resistance to Orbán’s autocratic rule.

However, dissenters, including those within academia, have the power to become the architects of the future they desire. They could move from the margins to the centre of the resistance.

Scattered protests against the dismissal of Zoltán Ádám have occurred. But a broader lack of unity in Hungarian academia and society hinders effective organised resistance to Orbán’s autocratic rule

Orbán should know the power of academic dissent. As an angry student in the 1980s, he railed against state socialism, and helped form a political movement that became the present ruling Fidesz party. Ironically, Fidesz is now replicating the authoritarianism Orbán once denounced. History may repeat itself if Hungary’s youth say enough is enough. Such turning points can emerge unexpectedly.

From universities to foundations

Orbán's initiative to transform Hungarian public universities into foundations has met with little institutional resistance. The only exception was the University of Theater and Film Arts (SZFE).

In 2020, the full SZFE leadership resigned in protest at what they declared was an affront to the university's autonomy. Students and teachers occupied the university building for 71 days. Could this happen again? It is impossible to say whether and when the tipping point will occur, but all individual and collective histories of resistance are important because they inspire and guide future resistance.

Dissenters must not forget the calls of their political forebears. They must demand not only academic freedom but genuine democratic safeguards so that Hungary can be the country it should be: tolerant, democratic, and proud of its historical resistance to oppression.

Orbán has cleverly fashioned the collective memory of the past, propounding a shrill, authoritarian political agenda. He claims Ottoman occupation is why ‘Christian’ Hungary cannot coexist with Muslim migrants, and he has vociferously rejected the 'mixing of the races' and multiculturalism. Orbán, who is far from espousing the principles of 1956, has propounded the idea that the 1956 uprising means Hungary cannot accept the supposed colonising of the EU.

Where is the tipping point?

Collective memories, though, are fluid. Inevitably, a crisis arises where the orthodox conception of the past, present and future is no longer credible, and there is a public perception that the ‘people’ have been deceived by those in power. In such a moment of crisis, the dominant paradigm falters, and people flock to new, potentially more honest, more credible paradigms, creating a new vision of the nation’s future.

Subversion of the rule of law, academic freedom and free speech, state criminality and cronyism, and support for Putin, all goes against the grain of the nation’s defining principles of 1848, 1956, and 1989. This may one day prove to be the tipping point.

⛓️ No.6 in a Loop series examining constraints on academic freedom in a variety of global contexts

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Contributing Authors

photograph of Gábor Halmai Gábor Halmai Part-Time Professor, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, EUI / Professor Emeritus, ELTE, Budapest More by this author
photograph of Balázs Majtényi Balázs Majtényi Professor, Head of the Department of Human Rights and Politics, UNESCO Chair in Human Rights and Peace, Eötvös Loránd University Faculty of Social Sciences More by this author
photograph of Andrew Richard Ryder Andrew Richard Ryder Professor, Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest More by this author

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