On a relentlessly gray Budapest morning, Michael Ignatieff took me to the rooftop of Central European University’s main building. The newly erected edifice is all glass, sharp angles, exposed steel, and polished wood. Its roof had been landscaped with billowing grasses and fitted with iron benches, as if a section of New York City’s High Line had been transported to Hungary. “This is probably my favorite place on the campus,” Ignatieff told me. He wore a newsboy cap in the winter chill; his reading glasses, which he’d absentmindedly neglected to remove, were wedged on the very end of his nose. The broad Danube and the architectural remnants of the city’s imperial past were splayed out in front of us.
Ignatieff, an intellectual who made an unsuccessful bid to become prime minister of Canada, has spent much of his career studying the fragility of human rights and the irresistible impulse toward nationalism. When he became CEU’s rector in 2016, however, he didn’t believe the job would catapult him to the front lines of the fight for liberalism. He imagined it would be more like a pleasant homecoming. Hungary is the native land of his wife, Zsuzsanna; he had come to know the place intimately on regular visits to her family. “I’m of a certain age,” he said. “I thought, That’s a nice way to top it off.”
He pointed to nearby government buildings. In one of them, the authoritarian government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán had, less than a year after Ignatieff’s arrival, devised a plan to evict CEU from Hungary. The university is widely considered the country’s most prestigious graduate school—it’s been a training ground for presidents, diplomats, and even members of Orbán’s own inner circle. But that inner circle had turned against the institution that had nurtured it and now sought to chase the school from the country’s borders. As Ignatieff explained this to me, he shook his head. “This was not supposed to happen here,” he said. [Continue reading…]