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President’s thesis mostly copied

March 29th, 2012

Commentators from across the political spectrum are trying to make sense of a report released by the fact-finding committee investigating whether President Pál Schmitt was guilty of plagiarism in his 1992 doctoral thesis. Commentators from both the right and the left believe that the President should step down.

President Pál Schmitt was accused of plagiarism after the weekly Heti Világgazdaság published evidence that most of the 215 page thesis is almost word-for-word translation of papers written by other authors (see BudaPost January 16). The investigatory committee of Semmelweis University in Budapest released its report on Tuesday. The 1157 page document does not use the word “plagiarism”, but states that Schmitt copied several pages without attribution. The report also notes that the bibliography and the references “did not meet the usual requirements.” The committee in its conclusion says that “the procedure, despite the above-mentioned flaws, did meet those formal standards of the university which were in force at the time. … The university made a mistake when failing to identify the copied parts of the thesis, thus the author [Pál Schmitt] could believe that the dissertation was in conformity with the relevant standards.”

Fidesz stated in a press release that Mr Schmitt’s party now considers the matter closed. The Christian Democrats (KDNP) claimed that the report cleared President Schmitt of the “politically motivated accusations.” Opposition parties meanwhile interpreted the report in unison as proof that President Schmitt was indeed guilty of plagiarism, should be stripped of his doctoral degree, and should resign from the presidency.

It is, however, not entirely clear what will follow. A Dean of Semmelweis University who was on the fact finding committee has announced that the group was only mandated to prepare the report, and the university itself, or the ministry should decide whether or not further steps should be taken. On Wednesday, the minister sent the report back to the University, on the grounds that he “was not the competent authority.” SOTE announced that the doctoral committee of the University was called for an emergency meeting on Thursday in order to decide whether President Schmitt’s title should be revoked. In an interview conducted during his visit to Seoul, President Schmitt himself said that the committee’s report has acquitted him of the allegations, and so he is not considering resignation.

In a nutshell, the committee has admitted that the President is guilty of intellectual theft, Népszabadság declares in a front page editorial. Every day President Schmitt continues in office will further damage the image of the country, the left-wing daily contends.

In another Népszabadság article, Ervin Tamás writes “The brief message of the 1157 page report is that although the author copied, which is a synonym for plagiarism, no-one told him that this was forbidden. It also states that despite several anomalies concerning the defence (of his doctoral thesis), the work met the formal requirements. All this suggests that the doctoral title (with summa cum laude honours) will not be revoked”.

Pál Schmitt stole (substantial parts of his thesis), but it is the university’s fault, not his,” Iván Andrassew writes in a sarcastic opinion piece in Népszava. According to the left-wing columnist, President Schmitt’s case shows how undemocratic Hungary has become under the Orbán government. In the same daily, Noémi Benedek fears that President Schmitt will not resign, which will demoralize higher education in general.

The committee claims that the evaluation procedure in force at the time met the formal requirements. As for the thesis, it clearly states that it did not, András Stumpf notes in Heti Válasz. He finds it disheartening that the committee identifies plagiarism and also claims that the dissertation does not fulfil the citation standards, but stops short, nonetheless, of recommending that President Schmitt’s doctoral title should be revoked.

Stumpf believes however that this conclusion will have to be drawn at some point. He speculates that Miklós Réthelyi, the Minister of National Resources, will have to revoke President Schmitt’s doctoral title once he receives the full report from the university. If this happens, Schmitt will have no option but to resign from the presidency – unless he decides to start writing a proper doctoral thesis, Stumpf concludes sarcastically.

The column was subsequently withdrawn from the Heti Válasz homepage by editor-in-chief Gábor Borókai. In his comment the editor – himself a former sports commentator – says President Schmitt, as an outstanding former sportsman and twice member of the Hungarian Olympic champion epée fencing team, as well as vice chairman of the International Olympic Committee, got special, lenient treatment from the academics who had to evaluate his doctoral thesis. Borókai admits that Mr Schmitt‘s contribution has been valuable to the governing Fidesz Party, but adds that the burden he now represents outweighs what he could possibly contribute in the future.

The gap between facts and reality has been widening for a long time, Index comments on the reactions of the governing parties. Index believes that Fidesz wants to create an “alternative reality” for its supporters by claiming victory and trying to act as if the committee’s report has cleared President Schmitt of the accusations. Before the release of the report, only 16 per cent of Fidesz supporters believed that the President was guilty of plagiarism, and that proportion is not likely to change. Index sadly contends that all this suggests that politics in Hungary is becoming more and more a matter of faith, rather than logical arguments.

In Mandiner, Ákos Balog remarks that by practically acquitting the President, Fidesz, which has declared war on the long shadow of Communism, has effectively legitimized the practices and the lies of the pre-1990 era. (At the time, universities were often lenient with prominent personalities, including outstanding sportsmen.) If the President stays in office after losing all credibility, he will from now on be a huge burden on the right-wing parties, the conservative blogger warns.

The leading pro-government dailies have not yet commented on the document released by the fact finding committee. In their reports on the committee’s findings, both Magyar Nemzet and Magyar Hírlap, emphasized the claim of the committee that the university made mistakes during the doctoral defence procedure.

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