Hidden in plain sight - Oxford and its uncomfortable alumni
Updated: Oct 24, 2019
Oxford’s famous alumni provide the university with a seemingly limitless supply of prestige, pride, donations, and controversy. The prickliest debates over former students concern figures whose legacy has been re-evaluated in the years since their death – most notoriously Cecil Rhodes – but even more delicate dilemmas can arise from alumni whose reputations shift radically within their own lifetimes. How does the university navigate the problems posed by its graduates suddenly transforming from heroes into villains?
One illustrative case concerns a certain Viktor Orbán. In 1989 he arrived at Pembroke College as a young pro-democracy activist aspiring to liberate Hungary from its corrupt communist regime. Fast forward thirty years, and he now sits entrenched in Budapest’s prime ministerial palace as the authoritarian ruler of a self-proclaimed “illiberal democracy”, having become the bête noire of progressive Europe for his anti-migrant, anti-Roma, and antisemitic policies. This trajectory is something of an awkward one for a university that has built much of its international status on the claim to shape the leaders of tomorrow, and leads us to question what exactly the ethical responsibilities of an alma mater are in this situation.
It is true that, on one level, Oxford can justifiably disavow any culpability for Orbán’s later actions.
Before arriving at Pembroke, he had already become a figure of national political importance through his celebrated speech of 16 June 1989 in Heroes’ Square, and he abandoned his Master’s studies after just a few months in order to contest the Hungarian general election of March 1990. It is thus unlikely that his brief stay in Oxford did much to make him the person or the politician he is today. Nonetheless, we must be wary of double standards here. After all, Oxford generally has no qualms about taking credit for the positive achievements of alumni who were only tangentially connected to the university. The great literary figure Samuel Johnson also attended Pembroke for only a brief spell (before being chucked out for his inability to pay the fees), but that was enough to get a building named after him and his portraits displayed so prominently that they have become memes.
Oxford can at least claim to have been relatively consistent in the low profile it has accorded to Orbán, which has saved it from the embarrassment generated by screeching U-turns in its treatment of other problematic former students. The most prominent about-face concerns Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese politician whose role in resisting military dictatorship long made her the jewel in the crown of St Hugh’s alumnae. The college’s Junior Common Room bore her name and her painting hung proudly in the entrance hall, but pride swiftly turned to shame when her role in the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims led to a very public fall from grace. In autumn 2017 the common room was hastily re-named and the portrait put in storage, even as Oxford council was moving to strip her of the freedom of the city. In contrast, Pembroke never made a great deal of publicity out of its connection to Hungary’s charismatic leader, even in the years before his reputation was irredeemably tarnished. The biographer of the great political philosopher Zbigniew Pelczynski – Orbán’s mentor whilst at Pembroke – records that Pelczynski travelled to Hungary with a delegation of Oxford friends to cheer on Orbán and his allies during the 1990 elections, but after this the politician had little public connection to his former institution. His name was absent from publications such as the Pembroke College Record during the 1990s and 2000s, even whilst they were relaying news and features about other political alumni such as Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski and Jordanian autocrat King Abdullah II.
Orbán attained pan-European notoriety only in his third prime ministerial term after 2014, and it is particularly interesting to observe the university’s policy towards him thereafter. Obviously celebration was out of the question by this point, but instead the university has charted a wavering course between trying to condemn and forget him. Among those taking the first approach, the academic Timothy Garton Ash has drawn specifically on his memory of the “bright-eyed, idealistic” young man he taught at Oxford to criticise the tyrant Orbán has become, whilst in April 2017 the Master and governing body of Pembroke wrote an open letter attacking the Hungarian government’s (ultimately successful) attempts to drive the Central European University out of Budapest.
At the same time, however, there remains the temptation to quietly brush him under the carpet.
Orbán disappeared from the list of ‘Famous Oxonians’ on the university’s website in 2014, but there was no attempt to present this as any kind of moral sanction; when questioned, a spokesperson insisted that “like much of the content on the university website, listings of this kind are varied and refreshed from time to time… the removal of a name has no bearing on the status of the individual.” His presence among the ‘notable Pembrokians’ listed on his old college’s website has been similarly transitory. After many years of absence, his name appeared on the page in early 2017, only to vanish again a few months ago. Official policy is that the list needs to be periodically updated to include a more balanced and diverse range of figures. This is undoubtedly true and laudable, yet it still seems strange that his was the only name removed in the latest reshuffle, and a time when his ‘notability’ (which is after all a morally neutral term) has arguably never been higher.
Ultimately, there are no easy answers to the question of how to tread the fine line between celebrating, commemorating, and condemning alumni whose ethical reputations undergo rapid shifts. Given the criticism the university has attracted for failing to remove memorials to people like Rhodes, it is quite understandable that many people are keen to avoid any hint of honouring ex-students who have gone on to do questionable things. Nonetheless, it seems reasonable to request that if these figures are dropped from publicity material on ethical grounds then there should be a clear statement of why they have become persona non grata, and that – in instances where the individual is still alive and in power – the university has some responsibility to make use of the platform created by its connection to them. In the case of Orbán, this has the potential to generate real results. Perhaps his most infamous actions involve support for antisemitic conspiracy theories surrounding the Hungarian-American Jew George Soros, which have enabled the regime in Budapest to justify attacks on academic freedom such as the banishment of the (Soros-funded) CEU. It is therefore a matter of public interest to remind as many people as possible of Orbán’s time at Pembroke, because this exposes his fundamental hypocrisy; for the truth is, the future prime minister came to Oxford only by means of a Soros scholarship, a beneficiary of the very generosity he would later try to deny others.
To stay silent is to risk falling into a hypocrisy of our own. An open and honest assessment of Oxford’s impact on the world means not cherry-picking the alumni we wish to remember and those we wish to forget.
Written by Louis Morris