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Theater University Students Protest with Barricades after Leadership Resigns Due to Gov’t Restructuring

Ábrahám Vass 2020.09.01.

Following the resignation of the leadership of the University of Theater and Film Arts (SZFE), a demonstration was organized by the students on the eve of the new system entering into force. They later barricaded themselves inside the university building in a protest against the forced restructuring, that in their view results in total “loss of autonomy.” The newly established foundation’s leader Attila Vidnyánszky, however, still stands by the changes and has promised to soon appoint new leadership.

The government decided to push for changes in the Hungarian theatrical world last year. In the case of SZFE, it is restructuring the entire operation of the university, supposedly to improve development, increase efficacy, and modernize the institution. Some ruling party politicians also mentioned that political and ideological differences played a role, as the institution is generally viewed as being liberal by right-wing government circles.

The new model of operation would bring the university under the control of a foundation, the members of the board of trustees of which are appointed by the government (although SZFE was allowed to make recommendations, none of them were selected). The plans have been met with opposition from the university, as SZFE teachers and students fear more governmental control and the loss of their autonomy.

The Fidesz-government, however, has been reluctant to compromise and voted to implement the new structure from as early as September 1st. The university’s existing leadership was left out of the decision-making process from the beginning and also from the new leadership as well.

In addition, it was made public that Attila Vidnyánszky, the openly pro-government director of the National Theater, who made a number of offensive statements about SZFE and its students, has been appointed to head the board of trustees that oversees the foundation. This resulted in a protest, and the departures of famous teachers, with many labeling the government’s move as “violent occupation.”

Mass resignations

Announcements of the leadership’s resignations were made on Monday, one day before the new system entered into effect. On Friday, the Senate already made it clear that the university’s new statutes, signed by Vidnyánszky, include “unacceptable terms” for them.

László Upor and Eszter Novák, both outgoing deputy rectors of the university, said the university’s leadership was being forced to operate “without any relevant information or real options” at their disposal during the transition period. Among other issues, they complained of not receiving any official notification of changes in the regulations of the SZFE’s operating body, and said their own proposals on key areas of supervision and management had been rejected out of hand. Autonomy is key for effective cooperation, and the recently re-written statutes of the SZFE exclude that, they argue. Eszter Novák also claimed that SZFE officially still operates as a state university, but in practice, it will be a private one due to political reasons.

According to the rector’s advisor Gábor Németh, the new documents curb the university’s independence in leadership and organisational issues, in finance, economy, as well as in staffing.

Academic and educational freedom are also in danger.

he insisted. Further on Tuesday, internationally renowned directors Tamás Ascher and Ildikó Enyedi also announced their resignations.

Demonstrations and barricades

On the night before September 1st (when the new form of operation comes into effect) a demonstration dubbed the “solidarity street ball” was organized in front of SZFE’s main building in the 8th district’s Vas street. The protest gathered around one thousand people.

Director Viktor Bodó stressed that the university and the students “did their best for the compromise, it is exemplary that they did not sink to the level of mud throwing,” he said.

Director Szabolcs Hajdu called professionals to “stand up against what is being done with the university”. “We are not enemies” (probably referring to Vidnyánszky), Hajdu said, adding that “the enemy is sitting upstairs in the box and watching while eating sunflower seeds,” (most likely referring to the Prime Minister who often does so when watching football games).

Gábor Németh claimed that the transformation of the university was the decision of the Prime Minister himself: “faithfully to his promise, he will finish what he started, and grind everything up. Why are Hungarians being silent? Why is the whole Hungarian higher education being silent? What else is left?”

Gov't Expands Control Over Certain Theaters
Gov't Expands Control Over Certain Theaters

In the shadow of the coronavirus outbreak, on Monday, the governing alliance voted in an amendment to the law on theaters that takes away control over the state-funded theaters from the local councils and puts it in the hands of government officials in charge of cultural affairs.  Under the bill, presented by deputy PM Zsolt […]Continue reading

The aftermath of the demonstration was that around 250 students barricaded themselves in the building, later announcing their plan to occupy the university with the aim of preventing the new board of trustees from entering the premises. They say that they want their demands to be taken into account, something that would provide a basis for the negotiations between students and the new foundation.

Vidnyánszky: I will appoint the new leadership soon 

Attila Vidnyánszky, however, seems not to be moved by the protest, and revealed to state media cultural channel M5 that he would soon make public the names of the new leadership. He argued that the dispute over the organisation and operational regulations of the university was at the root of the feud. The regulations drafted by the new management “ensure that the necessary changes take place”, and include measures such as a new campus and the launch of international studies at the SZFE, he said.

“I thought right up to the end that we’d be able to work together,” he also said, referring to the university’s leadership and staff. He stated that the innovation and technology ministry had organised a meeting on August 27th, which no one from the university attended. (This last statement was rebuffed by SZFE, claiming that the University’s chancellor turned up at the meeting, however, by then the documents had been signed by Vidnyánszky, who swept any chance for compromise off the table by doing so.)

Budapest mayor: After Index, SZFE also showing that bargaining with those in power is not an option

The Budapest mayor has also chosen to stand by SZFE. According to Gergely Karácsony, what is happening to SZFE now shows both the “destructive greed of the system” and where the limits of this “shabby and foolish culture war” are. “There are things with which those in power don’t know what to do. Such as with one’s endless humility for their profession, fair stance, and willingness to make sacrifices.”

After Index, now SZFE’s management and senate also showed that you don’t always have to bend your knee and compromise. And the push for power also destroys the professional work of those who now feel overwhelmed,

he wrote on Facebook.

SZFE students promise further actions.

featured image via Színház- és Filmművészeti Egyetem HÖK- Facebook