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.