On June 26 Judit Kende, a young social psychologist who just finished her Ph.D. at ELTE, wrote the following on her Facebook page:
This is what happened yesterday: I’m not a Ph.D. after all. It turned out that in order to get it I would have to swear to Hungary’s Basic Law, and this in my opinion was too high a price…. For example, the discriminatory sections of the Basic Laws limit the rights of LGBT people and the disabled and allow the criminalization of homelessness. So, by law I didn’t become a Ph.D.
She added that her situation allows her to be heroic because in two years’ time she will have a Ph.D. from the University of Leuven.
Reading this note, I had a very different reaction from hers. I wasn’t concerned with particular passages of the new Hungarian Constitution, however egregious they may be. I would have been equally outraged if I had learned that Ph.D. candidates had to swear to any constitution. “What on earth does the Hungarian constitution have to do with an academic title?” In a normal country, of course, nothing. Outrageous, I thought.
Of course, nothing of this sort can happen in Hungary without a huge public debate where people dissect the legal and political ins and outs of the case. In addition, a long article appeared by a certain Eszter Sebestyén with the title “A hysterical Judit Kende is lying,” in which the author went on and on about Judit Kende’s political motivations. Sebestyén accused Kende of being a member of a group that “ruined the left-wing prime minister Gordon Bajnai and demonized his predecessor, Ferenc Gyurcsány.” So, the attack on her came from the left, not the right. It was alleged that she is not a social psychologist but an ordinary social worker. It’s a shame, in Sebestyén’s opinion, that this course of study is awarded a Ph.D. degree, which of course is not Kende’s fault. Other anti-Kende articles followed that were, in my opinion, utterly beside the point. It matters not how many publications she has under her belt or the quality of her dissertation. What is important is that she received a degree which she cannot officially use because of a most likely illegal action on the part of the university. The inability to use the Ph.D. title on official documents wouldn’t by itself be a problem, but without the title she cannot apply for jobs that demand it.
And that brings me to another topic that raises my blood pressure every time I hear about it. What kind of an idiocy is it that dictates that people consider an academic title part of their legal name. In this country your official name is what is on your birth certificate unless, of course, you decide to change your name or you take your spouse’s name. If you want your friends and acquaintances to know that you received a doctorate (Ph.D., M.D.) it is up to you, but the official world is not interested in your academic title. Or, your students might want to call you “Professor So and So,” but since when do we consider that title part of one’s name?
Anyway, after all the useless chatter, TASZ (Hungarian Civil Liberties Union) came to Kende’s aid. Máté Dániel Szabó has taken up her case. Szabó finds it important that this “illegality at ELTE come to an end.” He added that they might be satisfied with a change in the regulation to make swearing on the constitution optional. Well, I take a more radical view of the matter. I would demand the cessation of the practice altogether.
Of course, I am no lawyer and I understand that TASZ will have to approach the case on the basis of existing law. It is not enough to say that the practice is indefensible. TASZ will argue that demanding a loyalty oath is illegal because it is contrary to the law on higher education. Their second argument is that it unduly interferes with one’s freedom of conscience. After all, there are religions that forbid their members to swear any kind of oath. Third, a sizable portion of Hungarian society has serious problems with some of the passages of the Basic Laws of 2011 since it reflects the beliefs of people with certain political and moral views. These last two arguments gain importance if the Orbán government thinks that a change in the law on higher education might solve the problem at hand.
I might add that this practice is not new. During the Kádár period doctoral students had to swear on the 1949 Stalinist constitution. At least before 1945 students couldn’t swear on the constitution because, like Great Britain, Hungary didn’t have a written constitution. During the socialist period no one could question the practice but today, when citizens have the opportunity, the issue should be pursued. It doesn’t matter whether it is the 1949, the 1989, or the 2011 constitution. Such an act simply has no place in a ceremony where doctoral degrees are awarded.
I wish Judit Kende the best of luck. And if I were her, I wouldn’t care about all the negative voices, this time from the left. I’m glad that she decided to be “hysterical.”