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Central European University officials announce that the school is being forced out of Hungary, October 25, 2018
Charles Kurzman, “From Brain Drain to Brain Flush,” October 31, 2018.

Hungary lost hundreds of its brightest minds last week. Some were distinguished professors; some were promising students. Some were Hungarians; many were from other elsewhere, attracted by one of the leading universities in the region. Their school, the Central European University, announced that it is leaving Budapest for Vienna, Austria.

This is not a typical case of brain drain. This is a case of “brain flush.”

The university is being forced out by the Hungarian government of Viktor Orban, who has spent years suppressing independent institutions that might challenge his increasingly authoritarian rule. The university, with its insistence on academic freedom and its international collegial networks, was a thorn in his side — or as Orban described it, part of “a real threat” to create “a mixed-population Europe.”

So Orban and his government flushed away an intellectual gem.

Other countries are engaged in brain flush as well. Turkey has fired thousands of university professors, along with hundreds of thousands of civil servants, as part of a purge of supposed coup plotters. No evidence of guilt was presented, only suspicions of oppositional sympathies. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government have intentionally transformed Turkey from a country that attracted international scholarly talent to a country that is hemorrhaging talent.

A decade ago, Iran arrested dozens of social scientists, many of whom had returned from higher education abroad to help build their home country’s academic programs, and convicted them in a mass trial of such crimes as teaching the work of the iconic German sociologist Max Weber. More recently, Iran has locked up environmental scientists.

These brain flushes do not compare with the scale of Stalin’s purges or Mao’s reeducation camps, which stunted entire generations of intellectuals. But the damage is real nonetheless.

Hungary, Turkey, and Iran have invested hugely in their education systems over the past generation. Like many middle-income countries, they recognized that human capital is essential for the high-end social and economic institutions that most wealthy countries enjoy. But human capital is not just some abstract investment. It involves critical thinking, and this skill inevitably leads to political critique. You can’t expect well-trained minds to be satisfied with things as they are.

Brain flush is a desperate attempt to reap the social and economic benefits of advanced education while avoiding this political edge. It is desperate because it signals a lack of self-confidence — an inability to embrace independent research and evidence-based debate as characteristics of healthy political life. Behind the bluster of Orban, Erdogan, Iranian leader Ali Khamenei, and their ilk, I imagine, is an anxiety that their legacy will not survive serious scrutiny. Their governments may produce heroic-sounding textbooks, but surely they know at some level that future generations will blame them for flushing away some of their country’s greatest brains.