Thoughts on CEU: CEU should close the Budapest campus

I am going to preface this by saying, I am putting my personal opinions in writing here. No more, no less. I don’t speak for anyone else. My words carry no more weight than anyone else’s who is part of the CEU community. I know this post will piss a lot of good friends and colleagues off. I hope you can forgive me if you are one of these people.

I started writing this series with two interrelated goals. I want to make sure the long term financial health and stability is at the forefront of more people’s mind. I also want to find a way to achieve this financial health without hurting our character and academic prestige in our new situation (which, I am sorry to say, is in Vienna). The first post in my series focused on a possible avenue to achieve this. It discusses a recent innovation in education that has the potential to generate more revenue than a tuition scheme and do so without sacrificing who we are. (If you haven’t read that, please stop reading this and read that first.) The second was a more personal (and, despite having read by more people than the first, probably less of a general interest) post on the consequences of what a good friend called the “academic vandalism of Fidesz and Viktor Orban” also highlighting some of my fears of how the move to Vienna could go terribly wrong for CEU.

There is an ongoing conversation about CEU’s presence in Hungary after the Vienna move. There is one proposal on the table arguing for maximal presence in Hungary. There is a working group put together right now to develop the plan for activities for the Budapest campus. As far as I can tell, there is not a voice on the other side, so for the duration of this blog post, please allow me to be that voice.

There is very little conversation on what the costs of maintaining operations in Budapest are. The proposal on the table does engage in some wishful thinking on where we could maybe get resources for this, but it is as realistic as the magical thinking about the revenue generating abilities we imagined for the alreadz defunct CEU Business School, or for the once overgrown and now deflated School of Public Policy, or, dare I say, our imaginary new tuition generating Viennese programs with which we can grow out of our financial deficits. (The rector, before the crisis, took office with a plan to shrink. That sounded prudent. Whatever happened to that plan?) We don’t have a good track record here so I fear for our future. But even if we accept the arguments made for revenue generation of a Budapest presence, it is not like most of those resources could not be generated in Vienna or put to better use on other projects. Nobody is considering the opportunity costs.

First, every day we remain in Hungary, we validate Viktor Orban’s arguments. He has been going around saying: “What do you mean we kicked CEU out of the country? They are there. Right there. Go down to Nador Street. The sign is on the building. People are going in and coming out. CEU never left Hungary. What CEU said is just a trick to smear the Hungarian government. They are not going anywhere.” And every day we stay in Budapest, Viktor Orban is right, we validate his rhetoric. Our complete existence is made impossible in Hungary, but we remain stubborn, stay and help Viktor Orban make his point. The University is now desperately searching for things to do on the Budapest campus without considering the possibility that maybe we shouldn’t do anything. Maybe we should leave. Seemingly, we are committed to taking a stand saying we are not going anywhere, but are we really taking a stand here? Maybe leaving would be the actual stand.

I understand that people have strong connections to Hungary. I do too. (If you doubt it, then read my previous post on what the Vienna move means to me.) But anyone who believes that a move to Vienna is evitable, if they can avoid commuting, they are really fooling themselves. A better question even, would they be so committed to Hungary if they had to commute back to the Budapest campus from Vienna?

I love our new building. It feels like a second home to me. I do not even go to my office (or, for people who really know me and know I never worked in my office, I also don’t go to the nearby cafes) anymore. I just work in the N13 public spaces because they feel like such a great work environment. I love our classrooms. I even loved teaching 60+ people stats in our 76 seat auditorium, because the room made it feel like a 25 person class. (That was some serious efficiency gain for teaching credits. I’ll never do it again without excessive TA support.) But, I believe, we need to go and make an equally great place, great environment for CEU in Vienna.

The second argument for leaving is financial. We simply cannot afford to maintain a presence on a second full size campus (that we are desperately struggling to fill up with life with things that will also cost money most probably). As far as the finances of the University are concerned, the people who are putting plans together for a tri-campus life with an equal Budapest and Vienna presence often cite the recent generous donation by the founder. If anyone thinks that generous donation is good for anything but putting us back on life support, really needs to check their numeric literacy. (I welcome them in my intro to stats class next year. We start with a basic algebra refresher.) Let’s just say, they need to have serious conversations with the Provost who is responsible for CEU finances. In a phone call we had recently, he was able to put our financial situation in quite real terms. I mean, we will survive it, the situation is not that dire, but… well… see the first post in this series about our long-term financial health. (And maybe also the second on my associated fears.)

There are two costs associated with the maintenance of operations in Budapest. Everyone talks about one of these, the cost of the actual operations. But there is another big ticket item that economists dub the opportunity cost (or the cost of not spending these resources somewhere else). To put it bluntly, I strongly believe that CEU would be better served putting the value of the real-estate portfolio back into the endowment (and to do this while real-estate prices are so high in Budapest). If the money is in the endowment, that increases our annual yield, it gives us more money every year to operate. Maybe the pressure to charge tuition would not be so large then. Maybe we could remain that place that is open to everyone if you are smart, hard working and ambitious (even if you do not have access to loans or do not come from money).

I understand CEU wants to maintain some of their non-academic staff in Budapest as a cost cutting measure. (Staff in Vienna will be expensive.) I am all for it. Let’s rent office space somewhere for them. We don’t need to have these offices in some of the most expensive real-estate in Budapest.

What makes this proposition quite painful is that such a wholesale departure, commitment to give up the downtown campus, means that our departure is final. But what were we expecting? That we can pack up Vienna and move back? Or that we miraculously could afford to operate two equal campuses in the future? (Check how that worked last time.) I understand that our new (social science PhD) mayor is now suddenly very welcoming but how does that help us when Fidesz, as they seemingly take a step, or two, back from their usual institutional annihilation march, don’t you all find it curious that the already negotiated treaty, the only thing needed to ensure CEU’s existence as an American university in Hungary is, at least to date, is still not signed by Viktor Orban?

I love our new buildings as much as anyone. But in my decade and a half at CEU, we already toyed with the idea, once, that we get out of the real-estate and move to another location. If we can ever afford to come back to Budapest (and the situation is such that we are welcomed back with no risk of a single election swiftly changing that), we can find a new home for CEU in Budapest. It is not like this possibility was not on the table before (although, I remember people didn’t like it too much then either, but that is beside the point).

Finally, and maybe most importantly, CEU should pursue all legal means against the Hungarian Government to get compensation for our damages. Recouping some of the expenses of this move will definitely help in putting the University back on a more solid financial footing. (This was costly. While our less than stellar financial performance pre-date the crisis, it is not unrelated to the costs endured with the move either.) I am not a lawyer. I don’t know how this works. But some avenue must be available to, at least, financially remedy the wrongs done to CEU. Sure, Fidesz will tell the Hungarian people that we are stealing their money, but that is not true. They stole the Hungarian people’s money when they, defying all rule of law, kicked CEU out of the country. Taking legal action against the Hungarian government will certainly make our relationship to Hungary more contentious. If that happens, we would need to worry about the safety of our real-estate, the safety of our staff and the safety of our students (something that has not been an issue so far). I don’t believe we could take legal action while we operate a campus in Budapest.

Of course, there are arguments for maintaining a strong presence in Hungary as well. The academic arguments are strong. At times very strong. Take for example the Baby Lab tied to the Cognitive Science department who run developmental panel studies of many many children, all in Hungary. Such academic operations need not be shut down, but they also do not require a whole campus. (Considering the Baby Lab used to operate out of a completely different building on the other side of the Danube for years, I do not think this argument is controversial.) Multiple departments have a closer tie to Hungary and CEE in general. I understand that they worry about moving out of this region. But it is not like we have much of a choice here. With faculty replacements down the road, these units will diversify. In the mean time, I am sure there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that if one wants to study what they focus on, CEU is the place to be in Budapest or Vienna. I would argue that we should not leave our academic roots in Hungary, we should, in fact, up our Hungarian societal outreach. We should build on the many Hungarians on CEU’s faculty to do this. Research on Hungary should persist. We should remain parts of the academic networks. I certainly hope to keep my position on the board of the Hungarian Political Science Association. I hope Zsolt Enyedi (the person who, if he got this far, is probably quite unhappy with me right now) and I will continue to collect public opinion data after each parliamentary election to ensure we stay part of the international network of election studies that make great electoral comparative research possible. But we do not need to keep our old campus to do this. Such activities, in most cases, can be coordinated out of a modest office and in most cases directly out of the Vienna campus.

What pains me the most in writing this is realizing how much our friends and colleagues, the social scientists at Hungarian universities and research institutes will lose if we move the library away. Whatever office is left of CEU should include a reading room, access to all of our electronic resources and a way to request book transfers. This is the least we can do.

Our Hungarian accreditation is up in 2022. The University is already trying to figure out how we could keep enough Hungarian employees to maintain Hungarian accreditation, but also have these people teach in Vienna. Any outcome of this is hardly an ideal scheme. Our romantic ties to Budapest will fade with time. New faculty will have no connection to Budapest. What will remain is  CEU that we all want to see successful both academically, financially and as the beacon of freedom where the future leaders, societal investors and social scientists are trained. Let’s make sure that we make the right decisions now to ensure we can continue doing what we do, in Vienna, under the best of conditions.


Enjoy the Budapest Music Scene

I am a firm believer that life does not stop when grad school work begins. (If for you it did, you are doing it wrong. Your grad school productivity is a function of how much rest and off time your brain has. Give it the time it needs to get things done efficiently, in less time. More on this in another post.) So, sparked by a conversation with one of you, students, on the departmental trip, I asked two of the pros, Juraj Medzihorský and Natalia A. Peral who recently left our PhD program to write up some tips and tricks for you. (Many thanks for the contribution.) This is our first guest post. There should be more coming. If you think you have something to offer to students, talk to me about posting it here.

The (mostly) classical music scene of Budapest (by Juraj Medzihorský)

One of the many great features of being a student in Budapest is the chance to see a lot of great music for really cheap. There are two principal venues for classical music Müpa Budapest (Palace of Arts) and the Liszt Academy.

Müpa is where the CEU graduation ceremony usually takes place, so as a CEU student you’ll get there eventually. There’s no reason to wait for your graduation to visit Müpa.

With a student card, such as the CEU ID, you can buy student tickets for 500 HUF. (Levi: Lets hope the Hungarian government did not mess this up as well allowing only the government issued student IDs. I would not put it past them.) These tickets are sold on the spot before the concert. Usually, the tickets are for the uppermost balcony. However, in case there are still unsold seats minutes before the concert, these are sold as students tickets as well. You can guess your chances of getting a good seat by checking which seats are already sold on Müpa’s website. A note of warning: for the majority of concerts it is easy to get a student ticket, and often with a pretty good seat. However, for high-profile performers and orchestras–think Daniel Barenboim or the Berlin Philharmonic–there will be a cue for the student tickets already hours in advance, and many will still not get a ticket. Just the same, you might get lucky as your humble correspondent did on an occasion or two, and end up paying 500 HUF for a 10 000 HUF seat

You can see the list of performances at

As you can see, Müpa’s program is by no means limited to classical music. Jazz and world music is also on feature there regularly.  On some days there are two concerts in parallel–this is possible because Müpa has two concert halls. One of the biggest attractions regularly appearing in Müpa is the Budapest Festival Orchestra. BFO is often ranked among the top 10 world leading orchestras, and it has a distinct character.

Perhaps the easiest way to get to Müpa, especially if you are going from the CEU campus, is to take the tram number 2.

Finally, a note on the dress code. While most concertgoers at Müpa dress up a bit, no one is going to stare at you for wearing smart casual.

The Liszt Academy is a different type of venue, with a central role in Hungarian musical education. It is also placed in the center of Budapest, about 20 minutes walk from CEU. Alas, the Academy does not offer student tickets of the same type as Müpa. However, performances there are often priced reasonably (think 1-2 thousand Forints), and quite a few of them are for free. That being said, tickets at the Academy often sell out days if not weeks before the performance. So plan ahead. You can find the program here.

Just like at Müpa, it includes also jazz and occasionally other genres as well. And just like at Müpa, you can do no wrong attending in smart casual.

For Opera Lovers (by Natalia A. Peral)

Do you love Opera? Budapest is your place!

In Hungary, the costs of the tickets are a bargain for the quality of the Opera you will see. You must know that the Opera season runs from September to May every year, June being mostly a month with a program for kids, specific events and one or two Gala nights. By early March the Opera also launches the season tickets so keep this mind if you are willing to get those!

As for the season 2017/2018 the Opera house will be closed and a shorter program will take place in Erkel Teather.  The Opera building is under renovation so you will have to wait until 2018/2019 season to really enjoy the full spirit of Opera in Budapest.

Do you want to know how to access to cheap tickets, even free performances? Here are some tips.

  • The cheapest seats are not necessarily the cheapest option.  Although there is a fixed price you can see online (my favorite website is hereor at the cashier in the Opera house, sometimes you can also access to even cheaper tickets through the following options
    • Get the ticket just few minutes before the Opera starts. I have done that many times paying 1000 HUF for a ticket that normally costs 17,000 HUF. Yes, it is possible and you need to be lucky! Generally, in every Opera day there are some empty seats of the seasonal tickets (people goes on holidays, get sick etc.!). People with seasonal tickets donate them to the Opera house so for the house to be able to re-sell them and collect extra money.
    • Ask for rehearsals and morning Opera performances: there used to be some at 11am, and rehearsals timing also varies. Just ask for these options at the cashier at the Opera house. I know, you have to be a true opera lover to find any charm in an Opera at 11am! Yet, tickets are very cheap, I recall paying 400 HUF, and even nothing at all!
    • Know a dancer, a staff member, a singer!  They are not only the best people to hang out with but also sometimes the best and only option to get access to performances that are easily sold out.  This is a win-win option, you not only will learn a lot and turn into a great fan of your talented friend but also you will be able to access to tickets for a very decent price, or to gain access to tickets that are not available otherwise!
  • The most expensive seats at best prices are lately more difficult to find since Erkel Theater opened its doors again. However, you can still try some options:
    • Ask for a last minute season ticket or last minute specific seat that you know is expensive due to its better location.
    • Check the various cultural events that take place in Budapest: for example, in September each year the official buildings are opened to the public and the Opera house sometimes distribute tickets on first come first serve basis for any performance on that specific day. This might change this year as only Erkel Theater is running the Opera performances!
    • Buy Season Tickets as early as possible. Know that most of them are sold out on the very first day they are announced, that happens on the same day that the Opera house announces its program for the year. This requires that you stay in tune with the cultural life in Budapest, or the Opera website! Remember that is generally in March when this takes place.

The dress code in Hungary is extremely free so don’t let the prejudices related to dress code and the Opera of the 19 century traditions deter you. However, keep in mind that the holders of season tickets in Hungary are generally traditional families and well experienced Opera lovers. So if you plan to get a seat that is part of the season tickets then, be aware that some might make you feel uncomfortable with their gaze – if you are just reaching the opera with your sport clothes, for example. Traditional season tickets holders are very protective of Opera traditions, everywhere, not only in Hungary! Nevertheless, except for the specific gala nights with specific dress code (generally thematic as well), you are free to reach the Opera with any outfit you want.

Whether is your first time at the Opera or not, there are two main performances I will always recommend in Budapest “La Boheme” and “La Traviata”. Performance, music and scenography are of an impeccable taste and level! This is just a personal viewpoint. I still truly believe that the best performances I have seen in the world of those two pieces are from my beloved Opera in Budapest!

Nevertheless, the Opera in Budapest is of high quality so keep exploring anything there is in the program until you build your own favorites!

If this is indeed your first time at an Opera performance, keep in mind that no necessarily you will get the flavor of the whole art-form in one opera day.  I particularly do not enjoy much Wagner but I do love Verdi and Puccini. So, I was very lucky that my first time at an Opera house was to see Tosca. My advice, your first time deserves the company of an Opera lover, so get someone next to you with the right passion to make of this an unforgettable memory!

As a disclaimer, keep also in mind that if this is your first time at an Opera performance, do not prejudge it through your experience at the Erkel Teather this year. Opera performances at the Opera house are sublime!  However, that might not necessarily be the case at Erkel Theater. I still resist returning there after it ruined the acoustic of “Aida”. I can tolerate the ugly building but I cannot tolerate the bad acoustic!  I haven’t returned since then, 2 years ago, maybe this has been fixed already!

Again, this is just a personal taste, do not let it deter you! Try it out! The quality of the Opera in Budapest is supreme and the cheapest in the world! No kidding!


Bamba Marha Burger Budapest Experience: A Though Review

First, know that after living in Nebraska for a dozen years, I am extremely tough in this category. In fact, up to a few years ago I explicitly told everyone that all burgers in the country are uneatable. Friends always point me to new burger places, but I always come to the conclusion that unless you lived in Nebraska for a decade, you don’t know beef. No matter how good a burger seems to a fellow Hungarian, they don’t know shit. (Sorry.)

But since, few steak places ($$$$) and later Zing and We Love Burger convinced me that if one wants a decent burger, it is not anymore unobtainium in Budapest.

Then I saw an article on Index which I cannot find anymore. It must have been a blog. It was 5 new must try burger places. Bamba Marha was one of them. So when my wife asked me to bring a burger today, I went there instead of Zing, where I usually go.

Service: I asked them what I should eat. They looked at me like I was from Mars and pointed me to the menu. When I explained I was asking for a recommendation, it was still a struggle. First they recommended the Sloppy Joe Burger to which I told them I came for a burger and Sloppy Joes don’t fit that category. Then they explained they have this hybrid where sloppy joe is smothered on the burger patty. WTF. OK. Whatever. I got one of those (mistake – it was as weird as it sounded). They also told me to get some Hawaiian sounding something. Suspiciously I said yes. (I asked for recommendation.) I asked for the “menu”. Also a big mistakes. I got two sauces. After being informed that all but two sauces are mayo based I went with those two. (How do you say blasphemy in French?)

Order to go. They came and asked me how to pack stuff (like I work there). They aluminum foil wrapped two burgers with a stick a wood stuck in the middle to keep it together. I guess that looks good if you eat in, but… Then they handed me the two drinks with a coffee cup top. I asked if they have some ideas how I should transport. OK they tried. Put aluminum foil over the top so the one I dared to put in the >>paper<< (could have been cool) bag did not spill immediately, it was OK until I got to the bottom of the subway.

I can’t say much more about the sloppy joe burger than pepper bits should not be in sloppy joes. And sloppy joe should not be over a burger.

(Side note: most recent sloppy joe I had was at a Michelin star restaurant, Longman and Eagle in Chicago. Highly recommended. Best bar food ever in the best whiskey bar ever at a reasonable price with a Michelin star.)

The Hawaiian thing tasted like someone in Hawaii got creative (and should not have). Smothered in teriyaki sauce with a pineapple on top. Not cool.

Fries had this cheap flavoring spice all over that is a flavor I only ever tasted in this region (and one that should never have been created). My mother sometimes uses it on meat. We had fights about it. The coffee BBQ sauce had the same thing in it. (It may just be Vegeta or MSG.)

I can imagine that the basic burger is eatable if you yell at them to not overcook it. Given that both burgers were soaked in something awful, I don’t know if they are smothered in something when they are ordered clean. (Most common mistake with burgers. Meat is not clean.) If you still dare to try, just make sure you don’t want to take it to go or as a value meal.

As I said, I am a tough critic so ymmv. If you want to try, they are HERE. Next, I will return to Zing which makes an acceptable burger, even by Nebraska standards. And if I need a burger in this neighborhood, McDonald’s next door is just fine.