Resolute Square

From Fascism To Hungary And The U.S., Authoritarians Target Universities

What happens on campus reflects and often anticipates democratic decline.
Published:July 13, 2023

Published with the generous permission of Ruth Ben-Ghiat. Read all of her outstanding writing in her Lucid newsletter.

By Ruth Ben-Ghiat

"Florida could start looking a lot like Hungary," noted New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg in Feb., writing about Florida Governor Ron DeSantis's quest to restructure higher education in line with his far-right views. Although many GOP politicians have made pilgrimages to Budapest to proclaim their alignment with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's repressive policies, DeSantis has been arguably the most aggressive adopter of Hungarian-style restrictions on LGBTQ+ rights and attacks on higher education.

As the GOP transforms into an autocratic entity allied with foreign far-right parties and governments, it's worth understanding how Orbán and other illiberal leaders target universities. They don't only shut down intellectual freedom and change the content of learning to reinforce their ideological agendas, but also seek to remake higher education institutions into places that reward intolerance, conformism, and other values and behaviors authoritarians require.

The regime of Benito Mussolini (1925-1943) provided the template for right-wing authoritarian actions. Leftists, liberals, and anyone who spoke out against the Fascists were sent to prison or forced into exile. Since most universities were public, professors and researchers were civil servants and could be pressured through bureaucratic means.

First came a 1931 loyalty oath to the King and Fascism, then a 1932 requirement to join the Fascist Party to apply for jobs or promotions. Student informers monitored their peers and their teachers, recording any critical remarks or anti-regime jokes, and new university student organizations inculcated Fascist values through extra-curricular activities

Young Fascists in 1941
Members of the Fascist University Youth organization in Ascoli Piceno, 1941. Note the squadrist dagger, symbol of the violence of Fascism, raised in the background. Wikimedia Commons.

In the Cold War era, Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, who seized power through a 1973 U.S.-backed coup, claimed that universities were hotbeds of Marxism and targeted them for "cleansing." By 1975 24,000 students, faculty, and staff had been dismissed (and thousands sent to prison), and philosophy and social science departments had been disbanded.

The junta replaced civilian university rectors with military officials. Air Force General César Ruiz Danyau announced his arrival as Rector of the University of Chile in Santiago by parachuting onto campus.

To turn Chileans against each other, faculty “prosecutors” handled denunciations of “extremist” colleagues who were imprisoned and tortured if found guilty. Foreign-born professors, now seen as untrustworthy, could be jailed and deported. Placed in a concentration camp on a remote Chilean island, sociology professor Klaus Meschkat felt he was reliving the Nazi regime that he and his parents had fled decades earlier.

Today’s right-wing autocrats mostly come to power through elections and extinguish freedom slowly. Yet universities continue to be the targets of leaders who seek to eradicate free thinking and turn campuses into sites of informing, mistrust, and fear. Orbán had already started to drive the liberal Central European University out of Hungary when his 2018 re-election accelerated his crackdown on education.

Much of this repression has centered on LGBTQ populations. A 2018 ban on gender studies preceded the 2020 end of legal recognition of transgender and intersex people. In 2021, a law outlawed any depiction or discussion of LGBTQ identities and sexual orientation, and some universities came under the authority of "public trusts" run by Orbán cronies.

Like his fellow far-right strongmen, Orbán aims to discredit and dismantle all liberal and democratic models of education to produce a new authoritarian-friendly population. As someone who grew up under Communism, Orbán knows the power of political socialization. He also knows that universities have always been sites of resistance to authoritarianism (a theme of the resistance chapter of Strongmen).

No wonder his latest measure against education has been dubbed the "vengeance" law. It punishes teachers, staff, and students who have engaged in protests for almost a year against low pay and disappearing intellectual freedoms. Over 15 towns and cities hosted protests in June. Orbán has slowly defunded public education, subtracting 16% from its budget over the past decade, and Hungary already has a dire teacher shortage.

This new law, which Hungarian opposition politician and European Parliament member Katalin Cseh called "a brutally oppressive tool," places educational policy under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of the Interior, which is also in charge of law enforcement. It allows the state to monitor teachers' laptops and videotape their classrooms and opens the door to working longer hours at the same pay.

No wonder a recent protest in front of the Hungarian Parliament spelled out the word "future" in melting ice. Educators and their students see their possibilities vanishing, and thousands of teachers have announced their intention to resign. The goal is to induce self-censorship or, as Cseh puts it, "compliance with a police state apparatus designed to silence them."

If some of this sounds familiar to readers in America, that's not surprising. DeSantis's advisors include individuals such as his aide Christina Pushaw who have been inspired by Orbán's policies. DeSantis's maneuvers to remake Florida's New College as a model of far-right pedagogy take a page from Orbán's crusades.

Increasingly, it's not just "make America Florida," as the DeSantis camp advocates, but "make America Hungary" —a goal fellow Orbán fan and former Fox host Tucker Carlson also supported.

Florida House Bill 999, which Goldberg calls "a shocking piece of legislation that takes a sledgehammer to academic freedom," is a case in point. DeSantis's law builds on American precedent in restricting study choices, curricula, and campus activities (anything that espouses "diversity equity and inclusion or critical race theory rhetoric" is banned). Former president Donald Trump ceaselessly worked to discredit higher education as "radical left indoctrination.”

Yet it also shows a debt to Hungarian anti-LGBTQ measures in barring Florida's public colleges and universities from offering gender studies majors or minors and, more generally, in welcoming a potential brain drain of progressive faculty, students, and staff.

Authoritarians are happy to engineer the intellectual, social, and financial impoverishment of the educational sector to get rid of anyone who stands in the way of their dreams of national and ideological purity.

Watch for higher education professionals to be increasingly targeted as agents of the destruction of family, decency, and nation as GOP politicians compete to seem more extremist and authoritarian —which will bring them even further into line with autocrats such as Orbán.

Far from being “ivory towers” closed off from society, higher education institutions are often front-line targets of those who seek to destroy democracy. What happens on campus reflects, and often anticipates, transformations of societies as authoritarianism takes hold.

Jonathan Kanter, “A Wide Anti-Marxist Purge in Chile is Shaking the Universities,” New York Times, November 14, 1973.

Klaus Meschkat in Laurence Birns, ed., The End of Chilean Democracy: an IDOC dossier on the coup and its aftermath (1974), 133-135.