George Soros and the inauguration of CEU’s Vienna campus

I first met George Soros in Tirana 20 years ago. His Open Society Foundations had little short of a holy status among young Albanians. The OSF had supported capacity building, and young Albanian professionals grasped the opportunity and started careers that were taken for granted in the West. OSF also supported my short tenure as an adviser to the then Minister of Culture. He visited us to accept the Order of Skanderbeg and spoke on behalf of his young grantees to encourage a struggling, embryonic Albania to look forwards.

Later I guided him around my excavations at Butrint. Few individuals have made such a deep impression upon me.

He was completely at ease in his own skin. An intellectual who has shaped his own destiny and invested in progress by investing in people to create new, open societies. Much later I visited the Central European University in Budapest. Here I discovered a university shaped by his mind-set. Wonderfully professional on all counts in a world where most everywhere the academy is in danger of losing its lustre to the market, and therein to management, CEU stands tall. Liberal values underwrite a desire to shape a progressive world. The ethos was and is simply remarkable. The faculty recognized their fortune, not least because they had outstanding students drawn from all over the globe.

It is so sad, then, that CEU has fallen victim to the venal politics of Hungary. It is sadder still that the EU, built on the very values that Soros has championed, has not sanctioned Hungary.

But CEU emboldened by its founder has found a new home in Vienna. It is a state-of-the-art building designed in a hurry yet fashioned to the strong emphasis upon pedagogy that CEU has championed. Attending the inauguration this Friday afternoon beginning with a fanfare, marshalled with wit and precision by the rector, Michael Ignatieff, was an honour.

CEU Vienna Campus

In 2019 as Ignatieff told us CEU’s resilience profoundly matters. Austria’s Minister of Education and the Mayor of Vienna spoke with passion about CEU’s mission. Then there were three academic interventions, short and pithy, word perfect, simply breath-taking. Ignatieff’s face betrayed his unalloyed pride and joy at the boldness of the thinking.

The penultimate address at this inauguration was by George Soros. Age could not dim his determination. An open society has greater than ever importance now in the face of opposition in Budapest. CEU will not desert Hungary but will grow in Vienna and build an international network with its many affiliates across the globe. He pledged the means to make this happen. Most of all he embodies a probity coupled with a vision that in 2019 appears in jeopardy from nationalists and populists.

A thousand people stood instinctively to applaud him. He is a beacon urging us onwards in a dark time. All of us - faculty and students from all points on the globe - knew, as I knew in Tirana in 1999, that his view of the future offers hope and peace and a commitment at the same time to the humanities and social sciences as essential instruments in shaping progress.

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