Michael Ignatieff Leads a European University in His Wife’s Home Country

October 16, 2016

Reinvention in Europe

Daniel Vegel
Michael Ignatieff
In a 40-year career, Michael Ignatieff has been a university professor, author, journalist, public intellectual, and politician. As the fifth president and rector of Budapest’s Central European University, he expects to draw on his past experiences to position the university for the long term as a global leader in education reform.

"I would like it to be a place where people say this curious little university in Eastern Europe reinvented graduate education," says Mr. Ignatieff, who was at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government when an executive-search firm, acting for the university, approached him last fall about the post.

"That is an ambitious goal, but I think we can do it," says Mr. Ignatieff, whose five-year appointment began on August 1. "Our size and the global reach of our students and the quality of our faculty allow us to think new thoughts about how to train a global student body for a globalized world." Central European was founded in 1991 by the Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros.

Citing the university’s academic track record, diverse international student body (1,455 master’s and Ph.D. candidates from almost 100 countries), and notable alumni, Mr. Ignatieff sees opportunities to equip scholars at the university and beyond to answer the question "How do I know what I know?"

In his view, the question is not esoteric.

"We are in the midst of a presidential campaign and European political elections where we are dangerously close to a fact-free political debate," he observes. Renewing graduate education, he says, "is all in the service of one civic ideal, which is to produce citizens who know the difference between knowledge, opinion, rumor, and illusion."

He would like to break down disciplinary silos, create additional opportunities for students to critically analyze ideas and statistics, and work with other institutions to deliver selected online programs.

"We have inherited academic traditions that worked very well for the 19th and 20th century, but we are now in the 21st century in the world of the internet," he says, one with "unprecedented access to knowledge but ever more uncertainty about what true knowledge and rational argument actually are."

Mr. Ignatieff’s five years in Canadian politics (including as leader of the Liberal Party of Canada), ended in a decisive national-election defeat in 2011. His new appointment comes amid turbulence in global politics, including in Eastern Europe.

"I was excited by the challenge to take on the defense of a free institution and a liberal institution in a society and a region where free institutions are not as secure as they are elsewhere," says Mr. Ignatieff, whose 25-year association with Hungary comes through his wife, Zsuzsanna Zsohar, who was born southwest of Budapest.

Throughout his career, he has written extensively on issues of international human rights, sovereignty, democracy, and politics, including in Eastern Europe.

As a professor at the University of Toronto and more recently at the Kennedy school, where until the end of June he was a professor of practice of the press, politics, and public policy, Mr. Ignatieff says he learned that "excellence is a game of millimeters, not about presidents giving big speeches exhorting the troops to be excellent."

Instead, he says, "it is about getting down into the engine room of a university and making sure that every damn course is as good as we can possibly make it." — Karen Birchard and Jennifer Lewington

Welcoming Hispanics

Dave Neligh
Stephen M. Jordan
When Stephen M. Jordan took the helm at Metropolitan State University of Denver in 2005, he aimed to fulfill its founders’ original mission to make it a "school for scrappy kids."

He wanted it to be "a place for kids who wouldn’t otherwise go to the big universities, but wanted to change their life conditions and the conditions of their families."

In pursuit of that goal, Mr. Jordan, who plans to retire next summer, sought to have the university designated a Hispanic-serving institution by the U.S. Department of Education.

Nearly 80 percent of the children enrolled in Denver’s public school system are members of racial and ethnic minorities — 56 percent are Hispanic — but in 2005, Metropolitan State was 74 percent white. Mr. Jordan has since nearly doubled the percentage of Latino students, from 13 percent in 2005 to 22 percent in 2015, and brought the number of minority students up to nearly 40 percent. The university is still a bit shy of the percentage needed for the designation.

"I said in one of my first addresses," Mr. Jordan says, "that the faces of our students should look like the faces of our community, and the faces of our community and the faces of our faculty should look like the faces of our students."

So he hired more faculty members — around 300 in five years, he says — and pushed to have 60 percent of credit hours taught by tenured or tenure-track professors, a bump of over 20 percentage points. And he made sure the university made diverse hiring choices. Now nearly 25 percent of the faculty are members of minorities.

The university sits on land that was once a thriving barrio, Mr. Jordan says, until it was taken through eminent domain in the ’60s. Hispanic families were pushed out. Forty years later, in the neighborhoods bordering the university, the resentment was still there.

The university had tried to expand into the community several times, but residents rallied to stop it, Mr. Jordan says. He knew it would take a lot of trust-building before that resentment faded.

Part of that trust was earned when he helped pave the way for undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at all public universities in Colorado, and a lot of them chose to come to Metropolitan State.

The university has since bought an industrial site in one of the neighborhoods bordering campus and, with community input, developed it into an athletic complex. Now children play soccer on a field built for Division II collegiate sports, and senior citizens from the community circle the walking track.

Having come so far in his goal to become a Hispanic-serving institution, Mr. Jordan says, he feels comfortable leaving.

"I think this is a good time," he says. "I don’t know if it would be fair to say we’ve accomplished everything, but I think we’ve made significant strides." — Nadia Dreid

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