“I belong to the world of intellectuals that is on the verge of extinction”: An interview with iASK Director Prof. Dr. Ferenc Miszlivetz

At the proposal of Hungary’s Prime Minister, university professor Ferenc Miszlivetz, currently acting as the Director of the Institute of Advanced Studies Kőszeg (iASK), has been awarded the Cross of the Hungarian Order of Civic Merit by President János Áder, recognizing his decades of outstanding achievements in scientific research and education as well as his role in articulating the development concept “Creative City – Sustainable Region” (known by the acronym KRAFT). On the occasion of the 26th International Summer University that opens on June 28, Professor Miszlivetz was asked about his professional career, the KRAFT Program and his plans for the future.

To begin with, could you tell a few words about yourself? What is it that our readers should know about you?

I was heading for a career as an architectural engineer, but I realized in my final secondary school years that I found changes in the economy, culture and society to be more interesting, something I would prefer to explore.
I belong to the world of intellectuals that is on the verge of extinction – a world inhabited by people who strive to reconcile their differing views of the world that always reflect changes, and reach harmony somehow. That is why I had become a researcher. I am a curious man with a powerful imagination, which I try to “bring down to earth” through a ceaseless inquiry into connections hidden within reality. Naturally, this had many benefits as well as drawbacks, particularly when this imaginative power can conjure up fantastic ideas in other people’s minds too. When this happens, even ideas that seem to be unrealizable in rational terms may prove to be feasible. I am stubborn in this respect, I always keep on seeking a solution.
Throughout my working life I have not been focusing on my own scientific career and promotion only, but also place emphasis on efforts to foster the renewal of our scientific institutions. I know that this may appear an immodest stance, since such a large-scale work is bound to stretch beyond a generation, yet I had and will never give up these goals. I have always worked to make the world a better place, at least a little. What many saw as my “saintly zeal” often turned out to inspire or “infect” others and provided energy, among others, for the creation and successful implementation of the KRAFT Program. In simpler terms, this is what we can call social innovation.

Now, could you outline your professional career? What do you think were the major milestones?

As I said, in the final period of my gymnasium studies I began to develop an interest in social changes. This included the stifled tension within Hungarian society at the time: its humiliation, self-alienation and the lack of the ability to realize its potentials. This was a fake realism of “this is what we have, this is what we have to like,” forcing people to come to terms with existing conditions, a definitive feature of this era which sometimes haunts Hungary to date. Owing partly to my family background, I always rejected this attitude. However, the other side of this fake realism was equally alien to me: the belief that we Hungarians are better than the rest of socialist countries. Seeking points of revolt, my friends and I used to annoy the then regime whenever we had the chance. I took part not only in overt or – most of the time – indirect protest but also in the organization of cultural events, for example, a classical music club. Eventually my attitude to the system that deviated from expected behaviour had resulted in my move to another school: I left Budapest’s inner city for the outskirt district Angyalföld before they could kick me out (nevertheless, later I was expelled from Kölcsey Gymnasium). Compared to my former school, at the new gymnasium, Kilián, I could experience a setting that was closer to life, which provided me with useful experience for my future journey.
Following some difficulties, I had been admitted to the Karl Marx University for Economics. Although it was far from a pleasant environment in political terms, I met researchers and educators with whom I have maintained good contacts ever since then. I should highlight Professor Tamás Szentes, who has been tracking and commenting on my work to date and often provides me with good advices.
In socialist countries the scientific world of the 1970s was suffering from an extreme scarcity of information, meaning that critical social science was practically non-existent. Aspirations that were deemed to be dangerous had been quickly suppressed, their originators were placed under pressure, and when this threat was not enough they were laid off or even forced to leave the country. While it was difficult to find any relevant literature in libraries, we “Szentesian” students could access the latest scientific findings from abroad. My friend László Béládi and I forwarded a proposal to compile a reader, which was eagerly supported by Professor Szentes, to our great surprise. This was the beginning of the series “Development Studies,” edited by the two of us for more than a decade – well, with a short interruption: in 1986, as a result of pressure exerted by the Hungarian Workers’ Party Central Committee, its publication had been banned by the then Ministry of Education, following a disciplinary investigation concerning our book The Jewish Question in East-Central Europe. When a year later we could relaunch the series, Hungary was already immersed in the crisis of Kádárism, so all of us focused on the changes occurring in domestic policy.
This period allowed me to learn editing and translation. Having received my degree in economics, I also obtained a degree in history at Lorand Eötvös University of Budapest (ELTE).
The Polish workers’ opposition movement Solidarity opened Western eyes to the social transformations evolving in Eastern Europe, which also had a part in my successful application for a grant targeting young Polish and Hungarian researchers at the University of Sussex Institute of Development Studies. This was a decisive year in my life: I could follow my career path, encountering the circle of Western European thinkers that I found very appealing then, where I could build excellent contacts that have proved to be viable to date. In Sussex I began to delve into a new research theme, the East–West arms race and movements that emerged in response. I thoroughly explored the theoretical literature on civil society, which I attempted to turn into practice immediately. During the 1984 Perugia Conference of the European peace movement I was among the participants who founded the European Network for East–West Dialogue.
It happened in the same year that one of the students at the newly-formed ELTE College for Law (later named after Hungarian social scientist and politician István Bibó) asked me to deliver a lecture which had been previously banned at a pseudo-independent peace club by the National Peace Council, functioning under strict Party control. This young student was called Viktor Orbán. What I had apparently discovered in the Bibó Collegians of Ménesi Street was a sense of mission and eagerness to learn, which was a novel, definitive experience for me. This encounter had proved to be enduring, they asked me to be their honorary teacher at Bibó College, and soon after we also began to organize the national network of similar colleges for advanced studies. Bibó Collegians were involved in the European peace movement and the organization activities of the Network for East–West Dialogue. At difficult moments we received substantial help from the international press and the European public. iASK is about to publish a book and set up an exhibition under the title Daliás idők/Heroic Times, commemorating this period.
Grassroots networks had a considerable role in preparing the regime change (which still awaits exploration), and the network of networks had an even more significant part. When the Network of Free Initiatives (whose name and inception were partly my idea) was turned into a political party through an internal coup, I had decided to remain within the world of scientific inquiry and civil society. A scholarship offered by the MacArthur Foundation and the Social Science Research Council of New York provided an excellent opportunity for further professional development: I spent its first year in the United States, at the University of California, Berkeley campus and Harvard University in the framework of a postdoctoral program. As a young researcher at the Institute of first, International Studies, then, of European Studies, I forged good relationships, maintained to date, with several notables of scientific life. In the second year I had the opportunity to conduct postdoctoral research at the EU’s European University Institute in Florence, and to travel around many Eastern European satellite states in the early days of the great transformation process. In Berkeley, which is next to San Francisco, I met my partner for life, Jody Jensen, who has been supporting all of my aspirations ever since then. I doubt that I could have achieved any of my aforementioned results without her. Shortly before my US study tour expired, I received a number of job offers, but it did not even cross my mind that I would not return to Hungary. I longed to create something new here, at home. Jody, who was attracted by Central Europe, backed my ambition, so we moved to Hungary.

Having returned home, I continued my research work at the Institute for Sociology at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, then we were invited to establish a new department at the teacher-training college in Szombathely. I was optimistic because I was always reluctant to adopt the attitude of “dare to be small.” Eventually, we did not succeed in transforming the college into a university, thus my colleagues and I established the Institute for Social and European Studies (ISES). With this step, a novel institution had been created within the college, which could attract considerable EU funds and had a high degree of independence. This Szombathely framework, however, was suitable for developing a full-fledged institute only for a while, thus in the early 2000s we relocated to Kőszeg, where we could create the Europe House earlier.
The 1996 International Summer University launched in Kőszeg had proved that this city is an excellent venue for a Central European dialogue.
At that time I began to ponder upon the possibilities of reviving small and medium-sized historic towns. This also made me committed to the renovation of the Synagogue in Kőszeg.
All these ruminations and commitments brought about – much later, from the early 2010s – the program “Creative City – Sustainable Region,” in other words, the KRAFT period.

What are your major areas of research, what are you working on now?

I am engaged in extending the KRAFT Program to the whole of Pannonia, and I also write a comprehensive monography on the transformation of Central Europe and the future of the European construction.

Among others, you are a founder and currently the Director of the Institute of Advanced Studies Kőszeg (iASK). What was your chief objective or motive for establishing this institute?

The conventional forms of institutions creating knowledge are not adequately efficient, and increasingly fail to give quality and quick responses to changes in the world. Together with my colleagues we articulated that an institution of a different kind is needed, which aims to explore the hidden connections among various disciplines, to adopt multiple approaches to complex phenomena, to understand paradoxes as well as to explore and make practical use of the potentials provided by those phenomena. There are few institutions which can carry out all of these simultaneously. Relying on the KRAFT approach, we have successfully set up a new knowledge hub required for the implementation of development projects. Links have been established between science and the aspects of strategic development. This is a great achievement, which required the strong professional network created in the late 1980s, senior and young researchers, professors, administrative staff as well as local citizens, Kőszegians.
Following its foundation, iASK was questioned by quite a few members of the conventional academic camp, saying that Kőszeg is an insignificant town, it has no higher education institution of its own, what is more, there are no university centres nearby which could provide a basis. I believe that this may be the very reason for which the region needs an institute which is significant in international terms too, while it differs from universities in its working.

In fact, this is the climax of a process that started long ago and is rooted in Kőszeg’s past as a city of schools. I am really proud of the fact that I could gather advocates such as Tamás Szentes, Tibor Palánkai, Elemér Hankiss, György Schöpflin and Iván Vitányi, who had been personally involved in the programs evolving here for a long time.
It was an important objective that we should also engage natural scientists in research work. In this respect too, important progress has been achieved over the past five years: prominent members of Hungary’s academia such as Norbert Kroó, János Bogárdi, Eörs Szathmáry and András Szöllősi Nagy readily participated in the construction – perhaps even more intensely than social scientists. On the other hand, our research fellows include internationally renown scholars such as evolutionary biologist Dan Brooks and Professor Charles Vörösmarty of the City University New York, not to mention the eminent domestic and international representatives of the younger generation…

Recently you have been awarded, at the Prime Minister’s proposal, the Cross of the Hungarian Order of Merit by President János Áder, in recognition of decades of outstanding achievements in scientific research and education as well as your role in articulating the development concept “Creative City – Sustainable Region.” Could you tell us a bit more about the KRAFT Concept?

Elaborating the ideas conceived in the mid-1990s, we did not give up our plans, namely, that the region of Western Hungary should have a university of international prestige. My resolution was also supported by Zoltán Gaál, former Rector of the University of Pannonia. As a result, the KRAFT Program had been successfully launched, relying on funds from various foundations and multinational corporations as well as support from the Hungarian government.
The KRAFT period comprises the past ten years. The research idea itself was born from a debate on the future of small towns. Big multinational firms saw potentials in big towns and megacities only. I could not accept discrimination against small towns, so I was seeking an opportunity to refute this belief. Finally, I succeeded in drawing the attention of the Hungarian government formed in 2010. The objectives of the KRAFT Program and the visions of the government overlapped at several points, primarily in the aim to ensure high-standard living conditions in the provinces through realizing the latent potentials of small and medium-sized towns.

What are your personal and organizational plans and goals for the future?

At the initiative of the Ministry of Information and Technology, we are about to launch the Szigetköz–Csallóköz project, which is essentially a research-based development project.
By now, our focus has broadened beyond Kőszeg to include the whole West Pannonian Region, with considerable help from the Pannon Cities Alliance. The idea originates partly from the University of Pannonia, its researchers played an essential role in the implementation of scientific cooperation within the region.
Of course, development projects have not ended in Kőszeg either, the Kőszeg-KRAFT continues. We have long-term plans, including the redevelopment of the former Children’s Home (MÁV Gyermekotthon) to host a Central European doctoral school complete with a large research library, and a so-called smart campus. Research on the Balaton Uplands with KRAFT methodology and the construction of a Big Data Research Centre are also in the pipeline. We aim to build a Central European knowledge base that is adapted to the conditions prevailing in Hungary and particularly within this border region – essentially, a new type of intellectual and knowledge hub.
All of this will not be possible without institutional cooperation of a horizontal type, which differs from previous patterns. The networked operation of adaptive and open centres of excellence should replace the obsolete model. Our aim is to present and utilize new knowledge in a new way. It is important for the representatives of different disciplines to find, through dialogue, a common ground, to cooperate, and to be able to link science to everyday life.
As to my personal plans, I would like to spend more time on continuing and publishing my own research. Considering iASK achievements, this seems to be possible now, since the organization is already capable to run on its own, firmly set on its foundation.

Scientific work requires a high degree of concentration, commitment and creativity. Sometimes, however, recreation is needed too. What do you prefer to do in your free time?

This is hard to answer because I have little free time. Whenever I have an opportunity to relax, I prefer to spend time on the shores of the Adriatic or in the mountains, in nature. The Lower Alps is an ideal landscape for this. Whenever I can, I sit at the piano again – I could not imagine my life without music. We have a big garden in Kőszeg’s Királyvölgy, on the Napos-tető. I hope that our house will be soon completed too.
In the 1980s at some time I had a vision: I dreamt of a natural and work environment which I can enjoy, where people are convivial and live their everyday lives in harmony with nature. Kőszeg is such a place, its built and natural environments, its entire milieu all add up to be very stimulating. In this respect I feel myself to be privileged and lucky.

I think we can conclude that you have an outstanding scientific career. You must have gained plenty of experience over the years. What kind of advice would you give to your present and potential colleagues who are about to set out for a scientific career?

Do not be afraid to ask questions, even if you have to doubt your own achievements. Dare to navigate new waters, do not fear failure: be brave and be open-minded. Always grasp whatever good you can find in a specific era.
Do not stick to a single field of interest, dare to approach problems with a broader horizon. Do not build a fortress around yourself – try to advance the world, make it better. Avoid hollow careerism that is devoid of conviction because you will not be happy with such work. Whoever chooses a career in research must be brave and has to take more risks. The task of science is to make people’s lives easier rather than to foster the fulfilment of individual, selfish goals. That is why researchers must pay attention to who, how and to what end uses their results.
As the current pandemic shows, the common good is highly dependent on the results of scientific research and their use. And this demands a strong sense of responsibility.

Photos: iASK, Horváth Attila, Ohr Tibor

The article was translated into English by Éva Szalai.