Hungary’s president Pál Schmitt has been embroiled in a plagiarism scandal. Accusations were brought in January that 180 out of his 215-page-long doctoral dissertation were lifted from another author, but close scrutiny following in the wake of the scandal has also revealed that Schmitt copied from several other sources as well.
With the justification that a doctoral title requires original scientific work, on March 28 Semmelweis University stripped the president of his doctoral title. Arguing that his position as the Hungarian president is untenable, even the pro-government newspaper Magyar Nemzet has called on him to resign.
The president refuses to let go of his position, however. Why? Not only because he questions his responsibility for the academic dishonesty of which he has been found guilty by his university, but because he is convinced that his dissertation is of practical worth and value for society.
What follows is the English-language version of the complete transcript of the Hungarian-language interview Pál Schmitt gave to the state television on March 29. The interview was conducted by Péter Obersovszky of the Hungarian state television MTV1.
OP: Mr. President, thank you for making yourself available to our crew. When the viewers see this recording, it is going to be evening, but we recorded this in the afternoon, so I am going to greet you with a good afternoon.
PS: Good afternoon.
OP: You have just returned from abroad, last night, to be precise. The university senate of Semmelweis University made a decision while you were on your way, in the air, which is now known to the entire country. When asked about it this morning on public radio, the prime minister [Viktor Orbán] said only this: that everybody must understand that the person of the president is protected, his person is inviolable. He will find out about the facts and react to them.
Now I find myself having to talk to two people, if you don’t mind: first and foremost, to the president of the republic, and secondly also to Pál Schmitt, the private person, formerly a sportsman and a student. First, let me ask the president. How do you react to what has happened? (o:59)
PS: It is hard for me as well to separate these two, but since you asked me in this way, I have to say that as the president of the republic, I am glad that the laws apply to everyone. There is no double standard, and one must fortify the faith of the people in laws and in institutions. In my capacity as president, I am leading an institution, in which it is important for the people to have trust, and to feel the strength of the fact that I represent this country, in accordance with the provisions of its constitution, and that I stand up for them at every forum. (1:30)
OP: Of course the whole country is waiting to see whether you are going to say yes or no in this situation. Are you staying on as president? So has it not occurred to you to maybe part from the title?
PS: The two are not connected, in my opinion, though many seem to interpret it that way. After all, let’s not forget that it was twenty years ago that I wrote, as a student, a minor doctoral thesis [reference to the Hungarian name of the title - see 1.3 at this link for an explanation] according to the best of my ability and intention. I made a pledge to my parents, by the way, to my mother, that one day I too will become a doctor.
I wrote a thesis. The university and the faculty of physical education gave me encouragement: this topic is interesting, it would be worthwhile to explore. By this time, I had been a member of the International Olympic Committee for seven years – in parentheses I add that I was an olympic champion – and an elected president of Hungary’s National Olympic Committee. Therefore there were many reasons for me to make a bit of a contribution, from the perspective of science, to knowledge in the sports community. (2:17)
Then, I wrote the thesis according to the best of my knowledge. They appointed an opponent and a consultant for me [titles of the two key members of the examining committee - as 2.2. of this summary of facts describes, they were both subordinates of the future president on Hungary's National Olympic Committee], who led my pen, so to say. I did not get any instructions, except encouragement. The preliminary opinion of the opponent [an evaluation written prior to the oral examination] was positive, this is how I was able to submit the dissertation. There, at that point was the last opportunity to say: hold on, this is not how you should have written it, put in more quotation marks, or write it at the bottom of the pages who this and that came from.
But back then – let me emphasize, twenty years ago we used to write essays on typewriters – it was accepted custom that at the very end of each thesis, there was what’s called a bibliography, a list of sources we have, err, quoted. (3:03)
Let me repeat, because this is a matter of personal honor, this is one of the reasons I am giving this interview and I find this very important, that I did not intend to declare anyone’s intellectual property to be my own. I listed my sources. I followed the instructions. I did not put together the rules of the doctorate for the University of Physical Education [name of the institution at the time of granting Schmitt's degree, now it is the Faculty of Physical Education and Health Sciences of Semmelweis University].
I acted as an average university student, and when I was done with the whole thing, it was a summa cum laude grade – let me also add that I passed my oral examinations, they took three hours, in front of a committee of six – it was such an achievement that I leaned back in my chair contented that this was honest, if you prefer manly, work.
And I have to add that this doctoral thesis was honest five years later, ten years later, fifteen years later. I did not really use the title, I derived no material or moral advantage from it, but I still had the right to use it. For a few signatures I did use the word “doctor.” As I do now, I also used it as the president – up until today, I add. (4:00)
OP: Actually, this will be very ugly in this interview, but I will still show you these papers. Here with me are copies of only the most important pieces of documents that I have looked through and you have shown me.
OP: It is not possible to do so right now, perhaps at a later date we are going to show them, but we do not have the time right now to quote from them. Everybody, who has been objected to thus far, Georgiev, the ladies…
OP: … whose essays are at issue as sources …
PS: A German Professor Heinemann.
OP: … exactly. Here is the list of secondary literature, copied straight out of your thesis. There is proof for every incriminating piece. I have known Mr. President for quite a while, and what I don’t understand is this: why are you so restrained? What I mean is that you are a person much more passionate than this, even as president. If these documents had got out earlier, if you had put on your [fighting] gloves, with the momentum characteristic of you it is possible that this matter would have never got this far at all. (5:00)
PS: I was hoping that these things get out. What I said is that they have set up a fact-finding committee, and that I have to respect them. This much I did say to the press: that I am going to wait for the results, and whatever the outcome may be, I also expect others to respect them too. Five people worked on it for two months. They wrote a study 1250 pages long, or however many, about a 220-page-long thesis.
Well, I respect this, because what they wrote in their conclusions is that my thesis met content-related and formal requirements. There were shortcomings, but they attributed this to the fact that my consultant and my opponent did not direct my attention to them. Well, they are the last I want to harm. Nor the University of Physical Education…
OP: Mr. President, you hoped for this, excuse me for interrupting you, but let me quote now from the rules at the time, from what used to be the University of Physical Education’s…
OP: … precisely, rulebook of criteria for obtaining a university doctorate. From among these, [let me point out] point D. Naturally, for a university degree one must pass a doctoral examination, have knowledge of a foreign language – this you had abundantly. Now point D:
OP: /quoting/ Submission of a dissertation containing new scientific results based on independent research conducted using methodologies practiced in academia or, or …
OP: … a work useful to society which is new and of practical utility.
Nowhere have I read this second sentence before. (06:18)
PS: I am very glad that you quoted this in. Err, this simply slid by. If in a Hungarian sentence there are two conditions, separated by an “or,” then regardless of which one I fulfill, I have fulfilled the task.
I think that this thesis is useful to society, and it contained new information, at any rate usable information, since later I myself used it often as a member of the IOC – incidentally, to save Hungarian sports, sports which have been in danger at a given time. And the Hungarian sport associations were able to find out what had been the basis for getting into, or out of, the program of the olympic games at any given point. If this were an important consideration, it slid by that I fulfilled principally this second part, in its entirety. (7:02)
OP: Mr. President, you have shown me the document in which back then you inquire about, for example, the material of the Bulgarian author…
OP: … what its legal status is: can it be quoted or can it be used within the IOC. In it, the person in charge at the time responds to you that yes, this is the intellectual property of the IOC, any member of the IOC may use it. I think that now, since you are a well-known person in the international olympic movement, you have worked there for long years…
OP: … have you asked for their opinion, can we expect them to take a position in this matter? It would make a difference. (7:40)
PS: The truth is that my conscience is clear. I prepared this dissertation in the most honest way, according to the best of my knowledge. By listing, among others, the sports researcher Georgiev too, the sports historian whom I knew very well, whom I knew personally – he used to work at the IOC, by the way, it was from the IOC that he drew his stipend to conduct research there – I felt that I have fulfilled my obligation.
Accordingly, I did not intend to present his intellectual property as my own. His name was there, at the first place moreover. By-passing any other considerations, it was the first, since I quoted the most from him. But his knowledge was already public knowledge, since he also researched minutes and the official results of the olympic games – sources which are the public property of all.
So I am not saying that I prepared new values, but that what I put together from everything was eventually useful for society, on that I do insist. (8:40)
OP: Mr. President, the senate of Semmelweis University thinks that they can take away your title. What happens now?
PS: They think they can take it away, what is more, in what I read, they have already taken it away. It made me feel bad that I was representing the country in Seoul [at the Seoul Nuclear Security Summit]. I met with important businessmen. I spoke at a world conference on nuclear security. I held talks with the Korean president about economic and co-operative issues while here a fast-tracked procedure [was taking place], in such a way that they did not even ask me.
Excuse me but there is a saying, audiatur et altera pars, the other party should be heard also. This is a saying several thousand years old, so I would have expected the senate to wait for me [internet portal Index notes that the president was interviewed by a member of the fact-finding committee - link in Hungarian]. Why this great hurry? They would have had to wait one day to call me in. Just like I could tell you now, I would have told them too how I conceive of this whole thing.
Err, so they are taking away my doctoral title, it’s on their heads. I am not going to argue with them. I would have given it back, if necessary, I was not using it. I was not using it enough to boast with it, and I never drew any material or moral gain from it. (9:55)
But I am going to prove that there is still perseverance in me, a former olympic champion, and I am going to prove now, as a 70-year-old, that I am capable of writing a dissertation that meets contemporary and very difficult criteria, a so-called PhD dissertation.
I will obtain a doctoral title this way as well (10:15), in accordance with the new requirements, with a topic in which I am already at home, since I have chaired the Sport and Environment Commission for 15 years. We at the IOC received an Earth award from the UN on this topic. We make the games greener, we bring the attention of the youth to the beauty of nature, to its wealth and protection. And today we are trying to organize not only the olympic games but all other sport competitions with a little bit of a green eye, so that they have as little detrimental impact as possible.
I have been a member of the International Olympic Committee for 30, 29 years, in my head there already exists a lot on this. I have led world conferences, I published quite a lot, I will put this down on the table. And I hope that this, just like I thought 20 years ago, will be considered useful and of new value (11:03).
OP: Mr. President, you have made it clear that you are going to defend your office from political attacks and that you are not willing to yield to political pressure. You are also proving now that the sportsman lives in you. But you were hurt in your honor as a human being, what is more as a popular human who is loved by many. Are you going to sue? Or is it your duty as president to endure this?
PS: Look, the president of the republic cannot be sued. So I am not going to sue, that’s what’s fair.
I will not sue, but I will reason. Like right now, with your help, everybody is going to find out that I proceeded honorably, and that my honor cannot be besmirched. Neither as the president of the republic, nor as Pál Schmitt, as an olympic champion, as someone who respects laws, abides by them and ensures that others abide by them as well can I do that. (12:02) I am going to defend my honor, but I will not start any litigation.
First and foremost I will stand up for my honor because I also have to defend the University of Physical Education, my second alma mater [Schmitt's prior degree is in economics]. I must defend my advisors. They acted in good faith, according the rules of the times. Now they are also under attack, something I would want the least.
Twenty years ago, these were the rules. We prepared a dissertation. I defended it, I got a summa cum laude, the highest possible qualification. I do not wish to deal with this any more.
The problem is that neither the preliminary opinion of the opponent, nor the [final] opinion of the opponent, nor the minutes have been made public. So there was no one there to defend me. I kept my silence, I said that the truth will triumph sooner or later.
Well, now I am at a point where, since this is a matter of honor, now I am going to do the maximum to stand up for myself and the truth, in one person, both as Pál Schmitt and as the president of the republic.
OP: Thank you for the conversation.
PS: Thank you.
The interview has been fact-checked by portfolio.hu (in a great English-language article) at the following link: