INTEGRITY is one of those words which has made it into the jargon of Slovakia’s academic and political community but it seems that people holding some important positions in Slovakia have little idea what the word means other than to use it as window dressing for their mission statements or as a bullet on a political flyer.
Integrity is surely not the word that many people would now associate with several academic institutions which have made the news recently or with certain public officials who viewed their academic responsibilities in a rather peculiar way.
There has been a lot of self-indulgent discourse about undertaking academic reform in Slovakia, but academia is truly about students and the way in which people approach their own learning and professional development and, undoubtedly, in that sense something is smelling deeply rotten here.
Earlier this week, the Sme daily broke a story about a high regional official in the Smer party plagiarising an economics professor when writing his bachelor’s thesis. He copied chunks of text from a book by the former dean of the Economic University, Mikuláš Sedlák, without attribution. The plagiariser is Stanislav Kubánek, head of Prime Minister Robert Fico’s Smer party in the Prešov Region.
The prime minister responded that evaluating the quality of a diploma thesis is not the business of a political party. But in fact, Kubánek’s plagiarism is not a question of a poorly written diploma thesis, but a question of integrity which, indeed, should be among the top concerns of a political party.
But Kubánek, now the happy holder of a bachelor’s diploma, is perhaps not the sole plagiariser associated with Smer.
Renata Zmajkovičová, a Smer MP, also faces questions of plagiarism after the Pravda daily reported that she copied several paragraphs of the law on parliamentary discussion orders without citing the source in her thesis. She earned her degree from Matej Bel University’s faculty of law with this diploma thesis. Zmajkovičová has resolutely rejected being labelled a plagiariser and told TA3 news television that even if she did not properly cite the law as a quotation in certain parts of her work, she did so in other parts. She dubbed it a ‘technical mistake’.
But former student Zmajkovičová is the Smer MP who ‘caught’ former Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ) deputy and one-time presidential candidate Iveta Radičová voting with one of her party colleague’s voting card. That action cost Radičová her seat in parliament when she voluntarily decided to give up her mandate following her momentary lapse in judgement.
“Deputy Radičová ran for president and she spoke about morals and decency so I assume that she will give up her mandate,” Zmajkovičová said in mid April, as quoted by Sme. She is not half as fiery about decency or morals now when her conduct in what should be the pristine world of academia is under scrutiny.
Unfortunately, these cases are not isolated personal stories but reveal some kind of decay in values among participants in Slovak academia. A textbook example is Trenčín University’s fast-tracked diplomas where some students finished their studies in amazingly short periods. Moreover, one of the speediest students is the offspring of a university dean.
Students at prestigious schools worldwide are required to sign an academic honesty pledge and these schools stress on their websites that plagiarism is an academic crime and will result in immediate expulsion. Leading universities make sure that their students understand from the first moment of matriculation that thoughts, texts and ideas are intellectual property that must be shared with others if there is to be intellectual pursuit – but at the same time they must be fully attributed.
Alma maters should not only teach technical details and facts but also must nourish qualities that will enable people later in life to make ethical decisions. Yes, it could have been that Zmajkovičová just made a ‘technical mistake’ and that Kubánek was only a very sloppy student who perhaps was too busy managing regional party affairs, causing his fingers to slip when writing his thesis. But in reality slippery fingers and technical mistakes shape other people’s vision of what is permissible within academia and they also speak volumes about whether people take responsibility for their mistakes. Without redress or at least regret, integrity is just a useless word.
Perhaps all people should feel that strange, queasy feeling in the pit of their stomach that comes from respect and concern for others whenever they write for an audience, talk to voters or manage other people’s affairs – a kind of continuous effort to make sure that the way they act, talk, write and think is in harmony with high moral principles and professional standards because, in fact, that is what the word integrity means.