The Princeton-CEU Workshop Report by Théophile Deslauriers and Johan Trovik, with contributions from Melissa Lane

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

The Princeton-CEU Workshop on the topic of Democracy and Autocracy took place on May 1 and 2, organized by Jan-Werner Mueller of Princeton’s Department of Politics and hosted on a virtual platform by the University Center for Human Values (UCHV), to launch a planned two-year research interchange between the two institutions in the area of political theory.  The interchange aims to strengthen the institutional bonds between the University Center for Human Values at Princeton and the Central European University, both of which, as UCHV Director Melissa Lane observed in her welcome, were founded in the years immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall at a moment of global optimism about the future of open societies and the value that research and teaching about ethics, political theory, and public policy could contribute to them.  In the last several years that ambition has faced severe headwinds affecting the societies in which both institutions were founded, of course at present affecting the future of CEU much more severely than that of the UCHV – headwinds that don’t just threaten the value of science, social science, normative reasoning, and rationality, and the value of international scholarly collaboration more broadly, which CEU so well incarnates – but also the public values and safeguards of the law to protect against arbitrary treatment. 

We at UCHV have been watching with concern as colleagues and students at CEU have been forced to contend with political pressures and ultimately a major relocation of their academic enterprise to Vienna – but we have also been watching with admiration as the research and teaching of CEU have not faltered.  And so in embarking on this two-year partnership in political theory conversation we do so out of a commitment to its scholarly value – the more so on reading the papers that were pre-circulated for the workshop. 

The workshop provided an excellent opportunity for both junior and senior scholars to make personal connections across the Atlantic.   It featured six paper presentations by graduate students and faculty from Princeton and CEU, with discussants for each paper drawn from both institutions as well.  The papers covered a broad range of pressing normative issues and historical questions. They included a discussion of the political morality and political ethics of electoral authoritarianism, a paper on debates about democracy and the British Empire in the Victorian era, a paper on the normative significance of social movements in authoritarian regimes, an account of service as a political value intrinsic to democracy, a discussion of the relationship between transformations of work and contemporary challenges to democracy, and a defense of the moral relevance of spatial attachments.

The workshop was an excellent opportunity for political theorists and others at Princeton to meet colleagues at CEU and learn about their work and interests. It was also a great opportunity for presenters to get feedback on their work from people they might not have had the chance to discuss it with otherwise. Finally, the conference was a way for the UCHV community to express its solidarity with CEU as it faces grossly unjust treatment from an authoritarian regime. In these difficult times, it was refreshing and invigorating to be able to discuss so much interesting work with a set of equally interesting colleagues.