Hungarian Theater Is Threatened

The autonomy of the internationally renowned Hungarian University of Theater Arts and Film is undermined by a government-controlled restructuring.

With ringing speeches, folk songs and dance, leading Hungarian actors and directors joined over six hundred sympathizers and students of the University of Theater and Film Arts (SzFE) in an impassioned protest at the Parliament in Budapest on July 3, protesting a restructuring they fear will destroy the institution’s intellectual and artistic independence. 

Under legislation proposed May 26 and passed less than six weeks later, the SzFE alongside with six other universities, is to be restructured as a private foundation, with a board of trustees appointed by the government. 

“The case is obviously another step in Viktor Orban’s determination to undermine democracy in Hungary,” said Austrian-Hungarian journalist Paul Lendvai, author of a 2017 biography of the Hungarian prime minister, in a phone interview. Local professionals agreed:  “This is not about the profession; it’s a political foray,” said Judit Csáki, former head of Theater Department at the University of Kaposvár. 

Protests began June 21, when it became clear that there would be no discussion or open debate of the proposal. With the title “Don’t push it through” (“Ne szavazd meg!”) #freeSzFE, students, faculty and theater arts professionals demonstrated, calling for open negotiations and institutional autonomy. In an open letter, over 200 leading actors, directors, writers and artists had voiced their support of the university, calling for academic freedom, media independence and the restoration of constitutional right of free speech. 

It was a stirring event, with many of Hungary’s biggest names showing up in solidarity, including award-winning director and screenwriter Béla Tarr, who encouraged the students in a letter: “Without freedom there is no creation, no happiness,” Tarr wrote. “The school is for you and not the other way around.”

The surprisingly rapid, arbitrary actions had caused a furor and resulted in a formal demand by the student association for the continued autonomy of the 155-year-old institution. To no avail: Over the protests of students, faculty and arts professionals, the decision was made: on September 1, the University of Theater and Film Arts will become a private institution led by a board of trustees.

The government claims the reform “enables the institution to fulfil its own and the market environment’s qualitative expectations,” according to a Ministry statement. SzFE is not the first to be so re-formed: Hungary’s Corvinus Agricultural and Business University was similarly restructured in 2019, to what is now known as the “Corvinus-model.”

Although the state denies ownership in favor of a foundation, the institution won’t become a ‘classic’ private university supported by tuition fees; the financing remains a state responsibility confirmed in occasional agreements between the government and the foundation. However, with the state abdicating its rights, the foundation is unconditionally granted the ownership of university assets and real estate and becomes the institution’s main decision-making body. 

The Ministry underlines that the working model puts an end to the limits of public finance, state budget and property laws and makes the current system “more flexible and predictable.” Referring to the constitution’s guarantee for autonomy of education, research and arts, the Ministry states that the reform ensures greater independence and “the functioning of the university as a cooperative institution promoting Hungarian culture”.

In practice, however, the government refused to consider students’ recommendations when selecting trustees. The negotiation behind closed doors on June 25 with László Palkovics, minister of innovation and technology, allowed for no democratic dialogue. The die was cast; five trustees were appointed by the government to take the lead of SzFE. 

Government supporters accused students and theater professionals at the university of ignoring cultural values, of professional decline, and poor educational quality. The government also complained about the university’s liberal attitude. Concluding his discussions with the student, Palkovics said, “I thought you were going to sing for us,” what award-winning film director Attila Janisch, a professor at SzFE, called “the most unscrupulous cynicism,” undermining internationally renowned artists and Hungarian cultural heritage.

Gloomy Sunday  

In response, the protestors showed up on July 3, with revised, catchy lyrics to well-known Hungarian songs and exuberant displays Hungarian folk-dance to counter the government’s claim about the university’s disregard of cultural values.

The university first learned about the new trustees on August 1 from media reports. None has any knowledge of the university programs and only the chairman, Attila Vidnyánszky, director of the Hungarian National Theater, the country’s most prestigious venue, and head of the Hungarian Theater Company, has any experience in arts education. 

“This board of trustees is incompetent, has neither knowledge nor academic experience,” confirmed Tamás Ascer, rector of SzFE deom 2006 to 2014. “It’s merely a representative of political will.”

The experience required now is political, something the new theater-arts front man has in abundance. In 2012, the departments of the Faculty of Arts at Kaposvár University were renamed “institutions”, to set the stage for the appointment of Vidnyánszky as Academic Director, with no academic qualifications.  According to former theater department head, Judit Csáki, the government’s installation of Vidnyánszky at Kaposvár was “only a dress rehearsal for the political encroachment at SzFE.” It was all part of an established script, she said even the earlier withdrawal of financial support. Now, after years of underfunding, the new leadership can sweep in with fresh infusions of cash –initial benefits that are usually followed by systematic layoffs and restrictions, she warns.  In 2015, Csáki won a preliminary court victory against Vidnyányszky for unjust removal. It seems unlikely the decision will be confirmed

So while, Vidnyánszky has become “The Pope of Hungarian Theater,” she says, he is a puppet in the Fidesz-directed privatization of Hungarian culture. His position is similar to that of Szilárd Demeter, chief director of the Petőfi Literary Museum who was recently commissioned to “renew” Hungarian popular music.

An Old Pattern

These threats to academic freedom and independent media are of long standing. Best known internationally has been Orban’s assault on the Central European University, an internationally-acclaimed institution founded by George Soros, which after months of relentless political pressure and legal challenges to its accreditation, has moved its main campus to Vienna.

Sustained assaults on the media over many years have resulted in nearly all news organizations coming under direct or effective control of the government. 

The most recent example was the suspension of Szabolcs Dull, editor-in-chief of IndexHungary’s leading independent media outlet. After governing board chairman László Bodolai refused to rehire Dull, over 70 of the outlet’s 80 editorial staff handed in their resignations, followed by demonstrations protesting the attacks on independent media and free speech. 

Reporting for the BBC, Budapest correspondent Nick Thorpe described the depth of frustration and discouragement among the journalists: “Staff resigned because they had pledged to remain free of political influence,” he wrote, “in a country where much of the media simply await orders from the government on what to report, and how to report it.”

At the University of Theater and Film Arts, despite faculty resignations and students’ challenges to the board appointments, the situation is unchanged: On Sept. 1, the restructuring of SzFE provides yet another example, says Lendvai, of the systematic undermining of democracy and establishment of centralized power. 

Dóra Wohner
Dóra Wohner started studying in Vienna in 2015. She has a great passion for arts, literature, music and cultural studies. During her BA, she spent a term at Goldsmiths University of London. She is now an MA student of anglophone literatures and cultures at the University of Vienna.

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