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McDaniel College's Budapest campus caught up in Hungarian political fight

McDaniel College has become entangled in an international dispute between billionaire philanthropist George Soros and the Hungarian prime minister that threatens McDaniel's 22-year-old satellite campus in Budapest.

The problem? The Hungarian parliament changed its higher education law in a vote widely seen as an attempt to close Central European University founded by Soros, a Hungarian-American financier. But the change has far-reaching implications for more than 20 universities around the world with campuses in Hungary — including the grand, three-story building where McDaniel students have studied the arts and business for more than two decades.

The law, in part, requires a written agreement between Hungary and a university's home country. There isn't one between Hungary and the United States, creating the dilemma for McDaniel.

Last week in Annapolis, the president of the small, liberal arts college in Westminster met with members of Gov. Larry Hogan's cabinet and diplomats from the Central European nation. The two governments and McDaniel hammered out the terms of an agreement that could assure the campus remains open — if the deal is finalized.

"I never imagined that as a small-college president I would be dealing with diplomatic relations," McDaniel President Roger Casey said.

The Budapest campus of what was then known as Western Maryland College opened in September 1994. Hundreds of students have since studied abroad in the ornate building that served as a Jewish school for the deaf and blind before the Holocaust.

More than 700 students took English-speaking classes at the Budapest campus this spring, said McDaniel spokeswoman Cheryl Knauer. Students may study all four years in Budapest to earn an American degree, and use their scholarships and financial aid there.

"A student that graduates from McDaniel Budapest, by all accord, is graduating from McDaniel in Westminster," Casey said.

The dispute between Soros and the Hungarian prime minister is essentially political.

Soros is a well known liberal activist who has bankrolled democratic and human rights causes around the world through his Open Society Foundations. He has poured at least $90 million into Baltimore through an office on Charles Street, funding civic programs for city students, prisoners and people addicted to drugs, among other causes.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, meanwhile, has emerged as a conservative nationalist and European standard-bearer for opposition to immigration. Orban has warned against the threat of foreign interests and vowed to make Hungary an "illiberal state."

Political tensions have seethed in Hungary as the country prepares for elections next year. In April, after the higher education law passed, an estimated 70,000 Hungarians and foreign students rallied in the streets of Budapest in support of Central European University, founded by Soros in 1991 and known as C.E.U.

Earlier this month, Soros called the Orban government a "facade of democracy."

"I am full of admiration for the courageous way the Hungarian people have resisted the deception and corruption of the mafia state the Orban regime has established," Soros said at the Brussels Economic Forum in Belgium.

Orban responded on state radio the next day, calling the remarks a "declaration of war." He accused Soros of paying "agent-like networks" to promote a liberal agenda in Hungary.

The amended higher education law requires that any foreign university with a campus in Hungary also maintain a campus in its home country. McDaniel meets the requirement; Central European University does not. It is accredited through New York State but operates solely in Budapest.

The new requirement and other changes to the law were made after Hungarian officials inspected the campuses of foreign universities operating there. McDaniel was the only campus without deficiencies, according to a Hungarian report published online.

"The goal of this whole inspection, most probably, was to attack C.E.U.," said Zselyke Csaky, a graduate of the school and researcher in Hungary for Freedom House, a New York-based organization that advocates for democratic causes, political freedom and human rights.

"After this inspection took place, the office of communications line was that C.E.U was operating without all of these permits and so a new law was needed," she said.

Csaky said there remains uncertainty about the motivation behind the higher education law.

"No one really knows what the real reason behind it is, whether it is political rhetoric, whether it is personal animus between Orban and Soros; it's probably a combination of these," she said.

Soros' Open Society Foundations referred questions to Central European University, where a spokeswoman said university officials feel targeted by the law.

"We do see it as a direct attack," said Colleen Sharkey, the spokeswoman. "We also see it as an attack on academic freedom."

A spokesman for the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade did not respond to questions about the law.

The U.S. State Department urged Hungary to suspend the law which "places discriminatory, onerous requirements on U.S.-accredited institutions in Hungary and threatens academic freedom and independence," spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.

She added that the federal government will not make agreements with Hungary regarding the universities.

"The U.S. Government has no authority or intention to enter into negotiations on the operation of Central European University or other universities in Hungary," she said in the statement.

University presidents around the world have signed a petition supporting C.E.U. Johns Hopkins University President Ronald Daniels sent a letter to the Hungarian government in support of the school, as did New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Staff from Cuomo's office met Friday with members of the Hungarian foreign ministry. The governor said in a statement they "made good progress."

"We look forward to a speedy resolution that safeguards the integrity of CEU and its vital educational mission," Cuomo said.

Members of Hogan's cabinet hashed out terms of a contract with the Hungarian government to bring McDaniel's foreign campus into compliance with the amended law. James Fielder Jr., the Maryland secretary of higher education, said they hope to reach an agreement before the Hungarian law takes effect in November

"It's basically a statement of support by the State of Maryland for one of its institutions," he said.

The Maryland Higher Education Commission doesn't often — or maybe ever — find itself negotiating with foreign governments. Though McDaniel is a private college, Hungarian diplomats sought assurances from the government of Maryland.

"It could be a first for us," Fielder said. "I have no model to use."

Casey, the McDaniel president, said he appreciates Hungary's higher education law, saying the government just wanted to make sure it did not have bad actors operating in Hungary.

A final written agreement between Maryland and Hungary is imminent, he said.

"We verbally agreed that we're all on the same page," Casey said.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

tprudente@baltsun.com

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