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  • Reforming the Postcommunist University
  • Andrei Marga (bio)

Students of Eastern Europe’s transition from “actually existing socialism” to democracy have so far paid little attention to the effects of this monumental shift on the region’s institutions of higher learning. Politics and law, macroeconomics and finance, civil rights and liberties, the church and the family, have all been objects of consideration. But universities—despite the vital roles they play in providing research and expertise and in selecting and forming the leaders of tomorrow—have not. My aim here is to help rectify this neglect by analyzing a single case, which I know well and in which I remain personally involved, of academic reform in postcommunist Eastern Europe.

My university stands in Cluj (sometimes called Cluj-Napoca), a city of about 330,000 that is historically the political and cultural capital and largest urban center of the region in western Romania known as Transylvania. With roots going back to the late sixteenth century, the university is one of Central and Eastern Europe’s classic institutions of higher education, and has been one of its most dynamic since 1989.

Both the city and the university have been shaped by complicated historical influences that have been at play for centuries in a region [End Page 159] conspicuous for ethnic and religious diversity. Founded originally by Jesuits acting on the invitation of Prince Stefan Báthory in 1581, the University of Cluj came under Protestant control in 1603. In 1776, Hapsburg empress Maria Theresa founded a Universität with German as the language of instruction. Her son, Emperor Josef II, turned it into a Latin lyceum.

There matters stood, more or less, until the Revolution of 1848, when the Romanians, who formed a majority of the people living in Hapsburg-ruled Transylvania, began demanding that Romanian be made the official teaching language in the province’s universities. In 1868, the Austro-Hungarian education minister and Hungarian liberal József Eötvös put forward a plan for conducting university instruction in Romanian, Hungarian, and German. The Romanian-speaking elite endorsed this plan, but their Hungarian counterparts rejected it, and Hungarian became the sole language of instruction in 1872.

In the immediate aftermath of the First World War, the Austro-Hungarian Empire broke up, the Hapsburg dynasty fell, and Romania became an independent country incorporating Transylvania. The university was nationalized, becoming the Romanian University of Cluj. Hungarian-speaking professors refused to swear allegiance to the new Romanian state and removed themselves to Szeged. In 1940, as the result of a territorial revision imposed by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, the Romanian institution relocated to Sibiu and Timisoara, and the Hungarian institution returned to Cluj. With Hitler and Mussolini defeated, the so-called Dictate of Vienna became a dead letter, and the Romanian-speaking institution, later known as Victor Babes University, returned to Cluj. In 1956, the postwar communist regime joined the Hungarian and Romanian institutions together as the Babes-Bolyai University of Cluj, with teaching conducted in both languages. Under the Romanian communist strongman Nicolae Ceausescu (1965–89), however, nationalist policies were imposed that gradually reduced the use of the Hungarian language in higher education. After Ceausescu’s fall in 1989, the use of Hungarian was quickly restored. In 1994, German-language programs of study were organized. The new University Charter, adopted in 1995 pursuant to the Education Act of that same year, enshrines Hungarian and German, along with Romanian, as official languages of instruction.

As should be obvious from this account, the history of the University of Cluj is closely interwoven with the history of ethnic relations—especially Romanian-Hungarian relations—in Transylvania. This past haunts the University even today, with three moments assuming special prominence in the collective memory of faculty and administrators. These moments are: 1) the denial by Austro-Hungarian authorities in the 1870s of a Romanian-speaking university for Transylvania; 2) the Hungarian-speaking professors’ refusal to swear allegiance [End Page 160] in 1918 and their subsequent migration to Szeged; and 3) the suppression of Hungarian studies under Ceausescu.

The legacy of communist rule presents a serious challenge to reformers of academic life and institutions. Marxism-Leninism (or after 1971...

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