Article originally published by Radio Free Europe on 19 October 2020
Hundreds of students, celebrities, and faculty of Hungary’s University of Theater and Film Arts (SZFE) have protested outside the Ministry of Innovation and Technology (ITM) in Budapest, urging the government to restore the autonomy of their institution.
A sweeping overhaul ordered by right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban at the 155-year-old university is seen as the latest step in his attempt to reshape Hungary’s public life to fit his own nationalist and culturally conservative agenda.
The government forced a transfer of control of the public institution to a private foundation as of September 1 and a new board of trustees to guide key decisions at the storied SZFE.
At the October 19 protest, which was attended by up to 200 people including well-known artists such as Oscar-nominated director Ildiko Enyedi, letters of support for the autonomy of the university were read outside the building of the ministry, which is in charge of managing the Hungarian higher education institutions.
“We have to get back the university’s autonomy to work as a real university. That’s it. It’s so simple,” Enyedi told protesters.
The SZFE management and a number of top professors, including Enyedi, have resigned in protest of the government’s move, while a group of students has been barricaded inside the university since September 1.
The few dozen students barricaded inside the university on October 16 defied an order by its new government-appointed chancellor — former army colonel Gabor Szarka — to end their blockade.
Students have been guarding the building room-by-room since then.
“We SZFE students reject the order to vacate the building,” a student speaker told a crowd of about 500 outside the school on October 16.
“We have reinforced the blockade and will sustain it until we are guaranteed the university’s autonomy.”
The institution, which nurtured many of Hungary’s leading directors and filmmakers, has been caught up in a culture war as Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s nationalist government seeks to reshape the cultural and scientific life of the nation.
Orban’s Fidesz party changed laws to force Central European University, a major graduate institution funded by Hungarian-born U.S. billionaire and philanthropist George Soros, out of the country.
The dispute over control of the landmark film and theater school has reverberated outside the country as well.
Last month several internationally recognized artists, writers, directors, actors, and academics — including actresses Cate Blanchett and Helen Mirren, and author Salman Rushdie — signed an open letter saying the changes are “part of a general cultural war to plunder the autonomy of all cultural spaces and institutions” in Hungary.