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Hungary Proposes Closing University Founded By Financier George Soros


Hear something that some Republicans here in the U.S. have in common with the Russian president and the government of Hungary - they are all outspoken critics of U.S. financier George Soros. And that could complicate the future of a university that Soros founded in Hungary. Hungary's nationalistic government has proposed a new law that could force the school to close. Students and faculty want U.S. support. But as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, some Republican lawmakers think Soros is the problem.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: In the basement cafeteria of a U.S. Senate building, 28-year-old Daniel Berg describes what drew him to the Central European University in Budapest. He has family roots in Hungary.

DANIEL BERG: My mother was a political dissident in the '70s. She left the country in the trunk of a car. And so I was born in New York. And I was always drawn to return.

KELEMEN: Berg is working on his master's thesis about illliberal political propaganda, which he says is on the rise in Hungary and part of the reason the university is under threat.

BERG: A lot of what is going on now is the same kind of backlash that we're seeing against globalization in Britain. We're seeing in this country. So Fukuyama's "End Of History" thesis seems to be being called into question. It seems that history has returned with a vengeance.

KELEMEN: At the end of the Cold War, philosopher Francis Fukuyama argued that Western liberal democracy had won and would be the final form of government. It was in those heady days that billionaire George Soros started the university - part of his efforts to open up societies that had been under Soviet rule.

Earlier this year, six Republican senators led by Mike Lee of Utah asked the State Department if U.S. aid was being used by Soros-funded groups to promote what they call a progressive agenda. Lee says the department dismissed their concerns.


MIKE LEE: Instead, current and former Soros organization associates took to the press to accuse the State Department's critics of being agents of the Kremlin.

KELEMEN: Lee was speaking at the Heritage Foundation. His office wouldn't comment on Hungary's moves against the Central European University. But we reached Mike Gonzales of Heritage to ask him whether the U.S. should be pressing Hungary to keep it open.

MIKE GONZALEZ: I would tend to say, no, you know? I mean, this university is a private university. It was founded and funded by George Soros. It reflects his politics. It reflects the way he thinks the world ought to be organized.

KELEMEN: While Gonzales says it is in U.S. national security interest to promote democracy, he's skeptical of Soros, whose Open Society Foundation, we should note, supports NPR. Soros, Gonzalez says, has a multilateral view of the world unlike Hungary's nationalist prime minister.

GONZALEZ: Hungary is a sovereign nation that can make its own mistakes.

KELEMEN: A prorector at Central European University, Eva Fodor, says it's sad to see Soros become a scapegoat in Hungary, where, she says, he's been supporting important causes. She says he doesn't play a major role at the school.

EVA FODOR: He is not present in our daily lives at all. I've been at CEU for 12 years, and I met him all of about three times.

KELEMEN: Fodor says she is getting support here in Washington, including from high-level Republicans. After all, the CEU is an American institution registered in New York. But she wants to see the U.S. do more and soon.

FODOR: Something very harsh needs to happen, and it needs to happen fast because the university only has about a month to make a decision about how it imagines its future.

KELEMEN: The State Department is urging Hungary to suspend the implementation of its higher education law, which could put this CEU out of business. A State Department spokeswoman calls the law a threat to academic freedom. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF J DILLA SONG, "JAY DEE 49") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.