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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

For the first time in the history of the European Union, a university is being kicked out of a member state. The member state is Hungary. The university is CEU, Central European University, seen as one of the world's best graduate schools. But Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban has picked a fight with it, a situation that University President Michael Ignatieff lamented when we interviewed him last year as it became clear his university was under threat.

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MICHAEL IGNATIEFF: We're not a hotbed of anti-Orban agitation. We never will be because I think that would compromise what a university is for. We're actually a serious graduate institution. And if they would leave us alone, we'll leave them alone.

KELLY: Instead, Central European University now says it will move to Vienna. Well, The Washington Post's Griff Witte has been covering this story. He joins me now from Hamburg, Germany. Welcome.

GRIFF WITTE: Thank you. Good to be here.

KELLY: So to give people listening a little more context for why Americans should care, this is a U.S. institution, right? A private school accredited by the U.S., founded by George Soros, the Hungarian-American philanthropist.

WITTE: That's right. So this is a school that has both Hungarian and U.S. accreditation, and it was founded by George Soros specifically to be a bridge between the West and the East. It was founded in the wake of the fall of the Iron Curtain, and the idea of the school was that it would be a school that would educate the next generation of leaders for Eastern Europe.

KELLY: So what is it about Central European University that Viktor Orban, prime minister of Hungary, doesn't like?

WITTE: Well, he doesn't like that George Soros is the founder of the university. So George Soros is someone whom Viktor Orban has vilified. He's made Soros into a boogeyman. He talks about Soros as being someone who wants a multicultural liberal vision for Hungary and for Europe that he sees as outdated.

KELLY: Is there something more at stake other than just bad blood between these two guys?

WITTE: I think there's a lot more at stake. This is a university. This is not a political party. It's not a political figure. It's a university, and it is being kicked out of a EU member state. And so that is, by its very nature, a question of academic freedom. It's a question of whether Orban is someone who is going to be able to just have his way and basically get his way.

KELLY: Well, we mentioned this is a - this is an American institution, so let me ask you about American reaction. The U.S. ambassador to Hungary, a guy named David Cornstein, arrived in Budapest this summer and said it was a mission of his to keep the university open. But then you interviewed him, Griff, just last week, and he had changed his tune. Let's listen to some of the tape from your interview.

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DAVID CORNSTEIN: The university is in another country. It would pay to work with the government, with the prime minister - not have an adversarial arrangement with the government.

KELLY: It would pay to work with the government. Griff, what do you - what was your takeaway from your interview with the ambassador?

WITTE: What the ambassador seems to be saying there is that this is a situation that George Soros could have avoided if he had been more acquiescent to the government of Viktor Orban, if he had played by Orban's rules, if he had been more willing to appease Orban. So it's a very different stand than what you have heard from U.S. officials all along, which is that CEU needs to be defended here.

KELLY: Should we read this as an ominous sign for U.S. institutions operating inside other countries with authoritarian governments?

WITTE: Well, I think that's a real concern. There are universities, there are companies, there are organizations - NGOs that are American operating all around the world. Some of them operating in adversarial governments and...

KELLY: Russia comes to mind, for example, or China or any number of other governments.

WITTE: Absolutely. And Hungary, let's not forget, is a U.S. ally. It's a country that is a member of NATO. It's a member of the EU, and it's taking this action of kicking out a U.S. university. There don't seem to be consequences. The signal to other governments that are autocratic or illiberal around the world, perhaps, is you can do this, too; you can kick out an American institution, and you're not necessarily going to suffer the consequences for that.

KELLY: Griff Witte - he is The Washington Post's Berlin bureau chief - talking there about Central European University, which has been kicked out of Hungary and which plans to welcome students in Vienna come September. Griff Witte, thank you.

WITTE: Thank you.

KELLY: And we should note George Soros is the founder and chair of the Open Society Foundations, which has been a financial supporter of NPR in the past. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.