Thoughts on CEU: What I lose with the Vienna move.

In my previous blog post on how to generate more revenue for CEU than a tuition scheme ever could (and do so without selling out our principle), I promised that this is only the beginning of a series. I also mentioned that I will, soon, write more about how “the CEU2025 plan […] (with generous help from the Hungarian government) will destroy everything that made CEU a great place to work for me.” This is going to be a very personal post and, really, nobody should care about this (in fact, if you have not done so yet, read the previous post even instead of this one). But I do want to lay out, in print, what gloomy future I see in the current transformations and our CEU2025 plan. This post is about how all these things affect me and only me. Others’ opinions may vary.

Let’s take stock at what CEU offered me. It allowed me to (1) be at home, in Budapest (in one of the nicest parts of the city), while (2) working in a mostly American academic environment, at a (3) prestigious institution where (4) we only have to work with the most ambitious students who decided to get a graduate degree. (5) We have a manageable teaching load in line with the research focus of the institution. We have time to do research. CEU (6) offered us a salary that is kind of sort of competitive with the Western world (where all of us coming to CEU – at least in the past decade) would have been looking for jobs) that, factoring in cost of living, allowed for an upper-middle class life. So let’s take this point by point in no particular order.

Budapest (1): CEU is leaving Budapest for the most part. A commute is impractical, to say the least. My wife and I decided not to do it. CEU will be going through incredible changes. I do want to be present to shape this change. But this comes at a cost. I am losing the closeness of my family and my home. I worked hard to move back from the US after 10 years of college there. Now I leave not by my own choosing. (I am not the only one who left the country because of a lack of appropriate jobs around that pay anything, so my personal tragedy is hardly unique. But this still feels a little different than economic migration.) Personally, my living arrangements are (were) ideal in Budapest as I live in a separate and individual apartment in a larger housing unit that my parents built for our entire family. Not counting a short pause between the death of my great grandmother (at a 101 years of age) in 2009 and the birth of my daughter in 2016, we have been a four generation household for most of my adult life. With the Vienna move I will have to leave this (or commute which, while considered perfectly normal for academic families in Germany, is brutal for someone who has different conceptions of normal like myself). My rent goes from practically 0 to whatever it will be. (Probably around 1500 EUR.) I have no equity in the existing real-estate. I guess I will always have a nice place to come back to if I ever want to spend a weekend or a few weeks in Budapest. I also lose free, instant and on demand child care. While others may prefer not having their family so close, losing that for me is incredibly difficult.

Graduate Only (4): To become a university in Austria, we had to accredit two undergraduate programs (and I understand, as I am part of the team putting it together, plans for more are on the way). One of these two programs is PPE (Politics, Philosophy and Economics) where my department, the department of political science contributes greatly. So we will now have to teach undergraduate students. During my graduate work at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, between 2002 and 2006, I taught undergraduates in the US. On average, this was a course a semester (or, while I was still an MA student, equivalent number of discussion sections for large lectures of freshman level Intro to American Politics or Intro to International Relations offered by a professor). My own courses included Public Issues in American Politics; Elections, Parties and Interest Groups; and Polls, Politics and Public Opinion. During my temporary appointments at CEU (2007-2008) I taught a course a semester at ELTE. Courses included Intro to Political Science and an adoption of the Public Issues class I taught in the US. I enjoyed teaching undergrads at the time, but to do this well is a lot of work. I don’t feel I have the experience to do this anymore. Working with graduate students, the expectations of an instructor change. I am sure I could get back into it, but it will be a transition and, let’s face it, from the perspective of prestige, it will be a downgrade. In sum, this is not ideal but teaching undergraduates is certainly not the end of the world.

The teaching load (5): This I worry about. As we move to an institution that is all graduate school and research to one that also focuses on undergraduate education, the teaching load may also increase. This is especially true in light of the financial position of the university (which I wrote about last time). Most of the plans circulating wish to add the undergraduate education without increasing the number of professors or pushing the undergraduate teaching on PhD students (which would not be a bad idea in my opinion). Some suggestions included the restructuring of PhD education in a way to eliminate teaching mostly or entirely. Either way, I fear, the teaching load will have to increase or the American Character (2) of the program that is strongly focused on teaching our PhD students will suffer. I don’t want to make this post about the relative merits of having or not having PhD courses, but let’s just say I believe a shift here would affect the political science program negatively and I personally don’t like it. In other respects we will continue to work as an American university. Most of this we certainly will not lose. In fact, if the parts of the University that were the most “Hungarian” (and I don’t just mean the canteen) could become a little less “Hungarian” and that would be an upgrade.

Salary (6): CEU proposed to raise salaries of assistant professors 25%, Associates 20% and Full 15%. (I fall in the latter category due to my very recent promotion. I even wondered if asking for promotion now was a mistake. But I think CEU would have managed to even it all out with the raise I got (or would have gotten next year) with the promotion. So I am going to believe it is a wash.) Austrian taxes are quite a bit higher than Hungarian taxes (so are the services, I guess – this certainly is a plus). But the cost of living adjustment is 50%. Housing price differential is 80% (which, as you see above will hit me particularly hard). Given my personal situation, I do not think I can maintain my current quality of life short of a 100% raise. And that I will certainly not get.

The University leadership is framing this issue the following way. We are told that Austrian academic salaries are actually comparable to (as in, not much higher than) our current salaries, hence the modest raise. Of course, anyone who knows anyone at the University of Vienna knows that these numbers are only half-truths. They are salary floors, possibly the ones in the union contracts. The reality is, in the words of one University of Vienna colleague, these sums are only made by people who have never been in a competitive situation in their lives. They got their PhD here and moved up the ranks. They never negotiated. Nobody at CEU got their professorships this way. The person also added that “I make a heck of a lot more than those numbers”. The fact is that actual salaries, especially of competitive people we believe we are, and especially in Vienna, are quite a bit higher. I am going to give leadership the benefit of the doubt that they simply do not know this. But they are also in a difficult position. (See the previous post on CEU finances.) But the framing still bothers me. Speaking of frames, I also heard the following pitch from the CEU Vienna office. If I had the opportunity to go teach at Columbia, could I still expect the school to provide my CEU quality of life where I can easily live in the best area of Budapest (so best area of Manhattan)? Of course not. (When I heard this pitch in the Vienna transition office, I was not there to complain about salaries and I have done nothing of this sort. I was asking if they know about the specific registration times for schools because I do not want to get there and not have access to the public education system. I don’t know if it is muscle memory, but I still got this pitch. I am going to let everyone figure out what is wrong with this analogy. The list could have its own post. And, sure, fair enough. Let’s accept that Columbia frame.)

I am not here to complain about my future salary, but there is a lot to complain about. I care about CEU’s financial health so I am holding myself back here. But I would be lying if I said this is not an important item on that list of things made worse by the transition to Vienna. And this will come at other costs. While I may be committed to CEU, not everyone will be. Some of the best people will certainly leave. With these salaries, with the higher Austrian cost of living, with the undergrads our ability to recruit the best faculty to replace them will certainly diminish. The quality of research output will go down. We will have a harder time competing for grant money also because we are not anymore in that difficult region of post-communist CEE where you want collaborators from on your team but often have a difficult time finding people who can maximally contribute. CEU was always an obvious choice. All of this means rankings will go down, that means we will have a more difficult time recruiting the best scholars for our grad programs, best researchers for our PhD (and post-docs) and that means we will have an even more difficult time recruiting the best faculty and the cycle perpetuates with the potential to seriously hurt the prestige (3) of CEU. In essence, we need to put a break on this downward spiral that the university is certainly in danger of getting into. Without financial health, we have little to no abilities to do this. (This is why I wrote the first post in this series and this is why that was the first. But watch out for more posts on the subject.) I can say this much, I am giving CEU many years to show that this pessimistic outlook of the future is not our path. And I will work every moment of every day to put breaks on this downward spiral before I am going to let my commitment to CEU wane. And I know that there are many people who think the same way. This is why CEU will continue to be a great place to work, a great place for students and a great place to be, in general.