An interview with Andrea Petö on current developments in Hungary and the future of the Central European University
CGC: Last summer, we got the news that the government is going to ban Gender Studies from higher education in Hungary. How could this happen? What do you think about this development?
Prof. Andrea Petö: The Hungarian government decree without explanation revoked the license of a two-year study program in gender studies without consulting with professional institutions nor the accreditation committee. There were two universities where the accredited master’s program was taught: at CEU, in a private university in English with no public funding and at ELTE, a public university in Hungarian with public funding. The issue of funding was not important but the ideological crusade against science and freedom of education. The Hungarian government crossed a line of intervening in the field of education with an ideological agenda and this action revoked the bad memory of communist censorship. But even during the communist regime autonomy of universities and education was respected. CEU continues to offer the program in English in Vienna as the university was forced to exile to Austria. Faculty at other universities keep on teaching their courses in gender studies and more and more faculty includes gender in their course. It is only the formal institutional accreditation that was revoked without explanation but the knowledge, the qualified and determined faculty remained in the universities. But by now I am very optimistic as this opens up new possibilities. First previously scholars of gender studies were either working in their offices in the attic or in the cellar, but definitely marginalised. Now due to the campaign Hungary, the country of 10 million, became the country of 10 million gender experts and everybody has an opinion about the reading list, learning outcome or the labour market position. Secondly, the recent strike at the universities of ELTE, Corvinus, and CEU proved that gender is being mainstreamed. On 16th November, an active strike was organized by ELTE, CEU and Corvinus University. That means that faculty protested against banning gender studies from the accredited study lists. Colleagues who previously were silently sabotaging gender studies now included gender in the courses they are teaching and that was how they protested against the government. This changes the perception that academics are and should live in an ivory tower. They would not have been doing so if the government had not had banned a discipline: gender studies. As far as CEU gender studies are concerned, we are all excited about the new possibilities and continuing the dialogue with a wider community.
CGC: the CEU is one of the few universities in Hungary to offer Gender Studies as a full degree program. However, your university now has to leave because of the so-called LexCEU and is about to set up a new campus in Vienna. Can you tell us a bit about this law and how it affects civil society and education in Hungary?
Andrea Petö: We are all excited about the new possibilities. The government decree without explanation revoked the license of a two-year study program in gender studies without consulting with professional institutions like in Hungary but the CEU programs in gender studies (one year, two year MA and doctoral program) have US accreditation. As long CEU can operate in Hungary or in Austria, the university leadership is committed to continuing offering these programs, which are widely popular. The recent years the number of application went up and the feeling of studying something „cool“ brought more students to CEU. Students and faculty know that what they do and how they are doing it matters and the academic life became a matter of life and death. It opens up a possibility to talk about meaningful issues. I consider it a great professional opportunity. I think this is a historical moment and a historical possibility, and we should be doing that in a re-enchanted language, because at this crucial moment in history there is a hunger for new ideas and emotions and facts, etc. Gender studies have a lot to contribute to this reconceptualization of the symbolic and linguistic repertoire and a toolkit of progressive politics.
CGC: To what extent do these limitations of academic freedom pose a threat to democracy in Hungary?
Andrea Petö: Gender Studies will not disappear. Gender studies become cool. My biggest fear is that colleagues are interiorizing helplessness and they are tired, worn out and depressed. This is how the polypore state works. The polypore state is working strongly with the concept of security and of securitising all possible aspects of life. It is working with the concept of creating and mirroring existing institutions: and I already mentioned the polypore academia. And it is working also with the ideology of familialism. This means that policy is targeting not individuals, but families. So, if you look at the CEDAW reports of Hungary or Poland, you see that they are basically replacing the concept of women with the concept of family. So women as independent agents are slowly disappearing from policy documents, and what remains is the concept of family. So, in this context, if you want to understand what happened with CEU and Gender Studies programmes, you see that Gender Studies was first a target and then CEU as an institution became the target with LexCEU. Now we are experiencing a socialisational fight in the Gramscian sense about values and power relations and it is the field of science where this is happening. A lot depends on how strong the different institutions will be to resist.
CGC: How is the new campus in Vienna coming along?
Andrea Petö: The campus will be ready by the end of September when the first year students start their classes there. Most of the faculty will be commuting from Budapest.
CGC: Finally yet importantly, the elections to the European Parliament are just around the corner. In one sentence: What is your vision for Europe’s future?
Andrea Petö: The main strategy of the governing FIDESZ for the upcoming elections will be to lead a positive campaign about the generous welfare provisions. The so-called family policy aiming to create familialism aims to boost consumption by offering generous loans. It also gives the impression that with money you can buy everything even the stability needed to have more children. My guess is that avoiding criticism from the European People’s Party besides a tuned down anti-migration rhetoric the pro-family campaign will be more present on the billboards.
Andrea Petö is Professor in the Department of Gender Studies at Central European University, Budapest, Hungary and a Doctor of Science of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. She has written five monographs, edited thirty-one volumes and her works on gender, politics, Holocaust, and war have been translated into 18 languages. In 2018, she was awarded the 2018 All European Academies Madame de Staël Prize for Cultural Values.