In 2017, the government of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban passed a law intended to drive Central European University, a prestigious school founded by a Hungarian refugee, George Soros, out of the country. At the time, this was shocking; as many as 80,000 protesters rallied in Budapest and intellectuals worldwide rushed to declare their solidarity with the demonstrators. “The fate of the university was a test of whether liberalism had the tactical savvy and emotional fortitude to beat back its new ideological foe,” wrote Franklin Foer in The Atlantic.
Liberalism, sadly, did not: The university was forced to move to Vienna, part of Orban’s lamentably successful campaign to dismantle Hungary’s liberal democracy.
That campaign has included ever-greater ideological control over education, most intensely in grade school, but also in colleges and universities. Following a landslide 2018 re-election victory that Orban saw as a “mandate to build a new era,” his government banned public funding for gender studies courses. “The Hungarian government is of the clear view that people are born either men or women,” said his chief of staff. In 2021, Orban extended political command over Hungarian universities by putting some schools under the authority of “public trusts” full of regime allies.
Many on the American right admire the way Orban uses the power of the state against cultural liberalism, but few are imitating him as faithfully as the Florida governor and likely Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis. Last week, one of DeSantis’s legislative allies filed House Bill 999, which would, as The Tampa Bay Times reported, turn many of DeSantis’s “wide-ranging ideas on higher education into law.” Even by DeSantis’s standards, it is a shocking piece of legislation that takes a sledgehammer to academic freedom. Jeremy Young, senior manager of free expression and education at PEN America, described it as “almost an apocalyptic bill for higher education,” one that is “orders of magnitude worse than anything we’ve seen, either in the recent or the distant past.”
Echoing Orban, House Bill 999 bars Florida’s public colleges and universities from offering gender studies majors or minors, as well as majors or minors in critical race theory or “intersectionality,” or in any subject that “engenders beliefs” in those concepts. The bill prohibits the promotion or support of any campus activities that “espouse diversity, equity and inclusion or critical race theory rhetoric.” This goes far beyond simply ending D.E.I. programming, and could make many campus speakers, as well as student organizations like Black student unions, verboten. [Continue reading…]