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Central European University has new home and new leader

The Central European University has been a bastion of democracy for three decades, but in recent years it was best known as a punching bag for the increasingly illiberal regime of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán.

It was Orbán’s 2017 higher education law that forced CEU to move most of its activities from Budapest to Vienna, where, following the tenure of Michael Ignatieff as president and rector, Shalini Randeria has taken the helm.

Randeria, a U.S.-born Indian researcher who started her career at CEU in 2002 as founding director of the department of sociology and social anthropology, said that the Orbán government had created “legal uncertainty and insecurity for CEU, through completely arbitrary and ad hoc decision making.”

Here, she saw an “uncanniness” in the parallels between aspects of her academic work and the troubles the institution has faced.

“I worked for almost 30 years as an anthropologist-sociologist in India on questions of forced displacement, and I’ve ended up leading a university which is forcibly displaced,” she said.

“Every forced displacement comes with enormous costs,” she added, referring to the emotional and social price paid by CEU’s staff and students as a result of the relocation, including having to move children to new schools, leaving parents behind and having to get acquainted with a new language. “The question is, then, can we turn this to an opportunity for ourselves?”

The Central Challenge

This is the central challenge facing Randeria, who was previously rector of Vienna’s Institute for Human Sciences and professor of social anthropology and sociology at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, in Geneva.

One of the most pressing tasks in the coming six months is to oversee the design of a new, permanent home for CEU’s roughly 2,000 students on the western edge of Vienna; the speed of the evacuation from Budapest means that the university has taught out of a rented, converted office space in the city center since September 2019.

But that new home needs careful refurbishment. The site hosts an “extremely visionary” former psychiatric hospital, laid out across pavilions in the 1900s, but which between 1940 and 1945 was the scene of the torture and killing of 789 children as part of the Nazi-led euthanasia program.

CEU wants its new campus to preserve the hospital’s architecture, continue to memorialize its victims and be carbon neutral. “It’s a triple project, if you like,” said Randeria, referring to the balancing act.

“We have, fortunately, two groups of faculty members working on the carbon-neutral campus from our environmental studies faculty and a group working on heritage and conservation and memorialization.”

At CEU’s foundation in 1991 by the investor and philanthropist George Soros, its intended intake was students from the newly democratic countries of central and eastern Europe, attracting budding scholars from across the continent and those who saw it as a stepping-stone to the best universities in the United States and Britain.

In the past decade, Randeria noted, “the student body has diversified considerably. Our students come from 100 countries; two-thirds of our incoming students this year are from outside the European Union.”

Randeria saw her own academic career, which began in Delhi as the fourth generation of women in her family to graduate from university, as a useful vantage point from which to rethink CEU’s offering to students, such as those from the Global South.

“The question is how to redesign our own curriculum and to mirror this diversity of the student body in the faculty, [and] how to rethink some of our courses to cater to the interests and needs of this very different, cosmopolitan student body from the one that the university was originally addressing,” she said.

As well as serving a global intake, Randeria also wants CEU’s academic offering to attract locals in its new home, “so we can become a global university not only in Austria but also for Austrian students.”

While she wanted to speak more with CEU’s staff and students “to crystallize ideas and to build a consensus” around the final form a simultaneously global and local CEU will take, she was certain that the institution was ready for a fresh start.

“We’re not a university in exile; we’re here to stay,” she said. “We will build a new campus in Vienna. Then one question will be the academic profile of the university in its new home, because it should be tailored, also, to this new location.”

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