Academic Freedom Under Pressure


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December 7, 2021

Academic Freedom Under Pressure

The Case of Andrea Pető

  • academic freedom
  • Democracy
  • Hungary

Andrea Pető is a Professor in the Department of Gender Studies at Central European University. She is an extremely well-published scholar (see her bio here), a distinguished historian who has also been a leader in the development of Gender Studies in Hungary and throughout Europe. Many readers of Democracy Seminar will be familiar with her work.

Last week Professor Pető “made news” when she very publicly resigned from a major Hungarian academic institution, the Hungarian Accreditation Committee (HAC), after she was pressured to recall a recently-published article critical of the current state of academic affairs under the anti-liberal regime of Viktor Orbán. The episode is well summarized in the headline of a fine recent Guardian piece: “’How dictatorship works’: Hungarian academic quits in censorship row.”

I have long been an admirer of Professor Pető’s work. And when I read her public resignation letter online, I was deeply disturbed by the entire situation. I then turned to the article that earned her the approbation of the HAC. Entitled “The Illiberal Academic Authority: An Oxymoron?,” the piece argues that under the emphatically illiberal Fidesz regime, a new form of synergy has evolved: serious professional academic institutions are increasingly influenced and captured by regime interests, leading to the support of unprofessional standards and the production of faux science that gives credibility to the regime. This short piece, which draws on a range of important work by Professor Pető and others, is compelling and fully consistent with much that is known about the workings of authoritarian regimes. 

Professor Pető’s article made me want to actually read the HAC letter to which her letter was a response. I asked her to send me the letter, which she did. With the help of my friend and colleague Valéria Varga, I was able to have the letter translated from Hungarian into English by a fine translator, Sean Lambert. I then read it. The HAC letter is at once insulting and foreboding and, with no irony intended, it furnishes strong corroboration of Professor Pető’s claim: that academic freedom is being corrupted in Hungary today. The heavy-handed way that the Orbán government forced Central European University out of the country is one form this authoritarian corruption has taken. The more subtle pressure and intimidation that is the subject of Pető’s piece—and that is also the barely veiled subtext of the HAC letter sent to her—is yet another, and more insidious form.

One reason we are publishing the HAC letter to Professor Pető, and her brave and powerful response to it, is because the exchange is a case study in the contrast between the rhetoric of corrupt academic administrators and the voice of an intellectual who refuses to submit to pressure. Another reason is because the kinds of pressures to which Professor Pető has been subjected are all too common in our world. (On this theme, I recommend two books, both edited by Michael Ignatieff and Stefan Roach, and published by CEU Press in 2018: Academic Freedom: The Global Challenge, and Rethinking Open Society: New Adversaries, New Opportunities.) 

Autonomous academic institutions are the heart of serious scholarship and liberal education. They are also one indispensable bulwark of liberal democracy and political freedom. We must defend them.

Jeffrey C. Isaac is Co-Convenor of the Democracy Seminar and James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington.

Dear Madam Professor! 

I attended the meeting of the Hungarian Accreditation Committee (MAB) on November 11, 2021, in order to share with you the information that I have learned from a credible source regarding the legislative changes affecting the teaching profession. My participation occurred after you had sought to convene a committee meeting on the subject in contravention of the MAB rules of procedure and then organized an exchange of views on another platform with several members of the committee. With regard to the latter, I find it particularly worrying that this did not manifest itself in my presence at the meeting and I regretted this at the time.

After the committee meeting, I was provided with the proofs of your article “The Illiberal Academic Authority: An Oxymoron?” which I read with interest. The freedom of expression is a fundamental right. However, “objective opinion” is an oxymoron that characterizes your entire article regarding the evaluation of the quality committee of the higher education institutions (accreditation) and the activities of MAB. After your three years of membership on the committee, a familiarity with the functioning and work of the MAB has apparently not occurred and you are grouping and reinterpreting opinions instead of facts. 

I have taken note of this, including the defamatory remarks made about the quality-assessment body and, by implication, MAB leaders. However, there is one thing that I cannot let pass without comment and this is the last paragraph of your article designated as a conclusion. This contains false statements about both the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA) and MAB that undermine the credibility of the two organizations, adversely affect their image and are not based on knowledge of the facts.

In light of the above, I request that the conclusion that portrays a cause-and-effect relationship between the Lex CEU and the abolition of the accreditation of the gender studies program be immediately withdrawn or corrected.  If the article has been published in the meantime, I urgently request that you contact the periodical to initiate the publication of an erratum. In order to rethink this conclusion, I suggest you consider the facts that do not support the causality you present, if only because of their temporal sequence.

* Law XXV of 2017, which has become known as the “Lex CEU,” amending the National Higher Education Law of 2011 was promulgated on April 17, 2017. This law, which also affected the Central European University (CEU) foreign higher-education institution possessing a headquarters in Hungary, entered into force on December 31, 2017, giving all foreign higher-education institutions operating in Hungary the opportunity to comply with the amended legal requirements.

* In July 2017, MAB initiated with ENQA its accreditation due in 2018 and the renewal of its full membership. The process takes an average of 18 months.

* In January 2018, MAB submitted its self-assessment report to the ENQA Secretariat in accordance with ENQA’s procedures and evaluation regulations.  

* On February 23, 2018, the MAB Board accredited the Közép Európai Egyetem (a higher education institution in Hungary) for five years on the basis of a report compiled in a procedure led by visiting committee chairman Edeltraud Hanappi-Egger (Rector of the Wirtschaftsuniversität Wien since 2015).

*The five-member committee delegated by the ENQA made a personal visit to MAB between May 2 and May 4, 2018. 

* The announcement of the decision occurred at the ENQA General Assembly on October 18, 2018. 

*On October 2, 2018, Government Decree 188/2018 was published amending Ministry of Human Resources Decree 18/2016 (VIII 5) on the training and outcome requirements of higher-education vocational training, bachelor’s and master’s programs as well as the common requirements for teacher preparation and the training and outcome requirements of certain teacher-training courses and amending Ministry of Human Resources Decree 8/2013 (I 30), which removed gender studies from the list of courses that can be introduced. The decree has been in effect since October 3, 2018. MAB, as a public non-governmental quality-assessment body, was not involved in the preparation and adoption of the decree.

The Hungarian Accreditation Committee for Higher Education has ENQA accreditation and EQAR (European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education) registration are valid until September 30, 2023. In both cases, compliance with the assessment criteria based on Chapters II–III of the ESG 2012 was assessed by a visiting committee of international experts in quality assessment delegated by the ENQA Board. This committee’s report is public. 

ENQA has associate and full members. In the case of the Czech Republic, which you cite as an example, the accreditation body that was reorganized in 2016 did not gain full membership. I will not go into the reasons for this here, but simply point out that it is difficult to draw correct conclusions without knowing the facts.

I hope the basic premise of science is not to publish oxymorons of “objective opinion,” but to provide the kind of analysis based on credible data and facts that are customary in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

I ask Madam Professor to state in writing by the end of work hours on November 23, 2021, whether she will delete or correct the paragraph in question. In the latter case, send me the text as well.

Best regards, 

Valéria Csépe 

MAB President 

To Valéria Csépe, President of the Hungarian Accreditation Committee (HAC)

Dear Mrs. President, dear Vali,

It is with great sadness that I received your 11 November 2021 letter No. 553/2021, in which you ask me to recall my article, Illiberal Academic Authorization: an Oxymoron?, which is about to be published after a double blind peer review process in one of the most significant academic journals, Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte.  In my article I claim nothing less but that the ENQA, i.e. the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education, accredited the Hungarian Accreditation Committee (HAC) at a time when such decisions were made in Hungarian higher education, which the ENQA should have dealt with seriously.

My task as a scientist is to seek explanations for past events. The fact that the HAC received its European accreditation while, in an unprecedented move in the history of the EU’s higher education, a degree programme previously accredited by the HAC was removed from the list of accredited programmes without any professional justification, is an analysis-worthy social fact. Higher education professionals and leaders Europe- and worldwide protested against this unprofessional decision, while the HAC remained silent. What I argue in my article – and this is what you object to – is that this episode well illustrates the fact that the ENQA, i.e. the institution responsible for quality assurance in European higher education, is totally unprepared to evaluate the higher education of the illiberal state. Furthermore, I argue that the HAC, under your leadership, temporarily benefits from this unpreparedness, because it is not held accountable for the positions it took – or it failed to take – on political decisions that undermined its professionalism. By assisting the illiberal state in the political de-professionalisation of Hungarian higher education evaluation, the HAC ventures nothing less but the competitiveness and moral capital of Hungarian higher education. In the meantime on the surface everything seems to be fine, committee meetings are held as usual.

It is probably a coincidence that on the same day that I received your letter I also received a letter from Krisztina Károlyi, the Chair of HAC’s Committee on Humanities, in which she drew my attention to my obligation of confidentiality. This coincidence is important because, as a historian, I have been long interested in how various dictatorships operate and how they persuade the citizens of oppressive regimes to cooperate with a regime that acts against their own long-term interests.

One of the ways dictatorships operate is that they take independent quality control out of the hands of professionals by creating an institutional hierarchy by which they overrule professional criteria and opinions. It is clearly not entirely by accident that the HAC Plenum, i.e. the supreme body of the professional committees, which brings together representatives of the various professions, can and does override professional decisions without being held accountable. This is how it was possible that although the Committee on Humanities rejected the application of László Pósán, Fidesz MP, for a university professorship by a 4:12 ratio on 9 April 2020, still, he was appointed on 13 November 2020. We only have heard, as the Committee, despite its request, has not been informed about the afterlife of the case, nor were we allowed to see the minutes of the Plenum’s meetings, that the rules for the evaluation of the appointment of university professors were allegedly changed during the first part of the Plenum’s meeting, then during the second part László Pósán’s appointment as a university professor was submitted in accordance with the newly set rules – and approved. Even if it just so happened, still, it is good to know, Vali, that you did not agree with this either, since, as you said at the 11 November 2021 HAC meeting, you “grumbled” to the Minister of Education in private about him appointing unfit people and overriding professional reviews. 

However, you didn’t “grumble” when the professional part of the Hungarian secondary school teacher training, which was already bleeding from a thousand wounds, was reorganised without the universities’ views or the HAC’s opinion considered. By decree, a whole year of professional training was removed from the teacher training curriculum, thus reducing training time. This year of knowledge will be sorely missed in secondary schools because what teacher’s training graduates have not learned, they will not be able to pass on. This takes away opportunities from all students in Hungarian secondary schools and the hope of their parents that their children will be able to acquire competitive knowledge in Hungarian secondary education. Not only does the new secondary school teacher training programme start with a dumbed-down curriculum, but the programme’s Training and Exit Requirements (TER) were not defined either, therefore the HAC has no basis to examine the standards of the individual courses. In short, Hungarian educational quality assurance has failed – we do not even know what professional content has been retained in the teacher training courses from the previously assessed and approved material. 

At the meeting you said that you have no legal authorization to investigate this issue. This is exactly how dictatorships work: they are so careful to make everything appear legal when everything is just a facade. As I analyse in my article that you object to, keeping up the illusion of a legitimately functioning Hungarian Accreditation Committee is important for the illiberal state because the opinion of international accreditation organisations, such as the ENQA, determines whether Hungarian higher education receives money from Brussels, which then directly or indirectly travels into the pockets of selected cadres.

It is important for you to know that you, as the President of the Hungarian Accreditation Committee, can do something to ensure that the HAC does not lose all its professional weight and become the illiberal state’s tool for positioning cadres and destructing the profession. But you do nothing. At the meeting of the Humanities Committee András Máthé-Tóth aptly described the work of the Committee in recent years: “We’re constantly swallowing.” But why are the representatives of the profession “swallowing” in the HAC Committees? Our colleagues abroad, who may be working in higher education quality control institutions with a similar structure, do not have to “swallow”, because they are not nodding their heads in favour of pre-decided measures in an institution that is taken hostage by an illiberal state, but are carrying out real professional evaluations.

You know that I am all for professional dialogue, but beyond a point improvement from within and the preservation of professional values are merely illusions thus no longer sustainable. While analysing the history of dictatorships, I have learned that there were no written instructions about the kind of subservient behaviour that was expected from subjects. There is no written track of when and how an institution and those running it become servants of the dictatorship. Collusion usually follows verbal hints and compliance with perceived or real expectations. I have now been fortunate enough to receive clear instructions in written form regarding the institutional expectations, which for reasons of professionalism and conscience I cannot and will not comply with, even if this jeopardizes the current functioning of the HAC.

Both official letters written to me demonstrate that the HAC operates in a manner inconsistent with the professional values of higher education quality assurance, which is of national strategic importance. This is inconsistent with my conscience. With this letter I am knowingly breaching confidentiality and accept all the consequences. Furthermore, in view of our long-standing friendship, I would like to inform you that I have written in Hungarian about the quality assurance of Hungarian higher education in the next issue of Sic Itur ad Astra. Since it is within your power to ban this journal, I have already warned the brave editors to prepare for samizdat distribution. 

I hereby resign my membership of the HAC and inform the relevant bodies of ENQA and EQAR, the European organisations responsible for quality assurance in higher education, of my professional and ethical reasons. I am aware that the quality of Hungarian higher education evaluation cannot be saved from abroad. Change in the quality assessment of Hungarian higher education is only possible from within, and therefore I hope that more people will follow my example and together we will give it another try later.

Best regards:

Andrea Pető, Professor, Doctor of Science, PhD, Honorary Doctor of the University of Söderthörn, Sweden, recipient of the All European Academies (ALLEA)  2018 Madame de Staël Prize for Cultural Values

23 November, 2021


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