Why was it so important for the University of Veterinary Medicine to regain its independence? What does the rector consider as the key achievements of his first term? What goals did he set for his new term? These are some of the questions we discussed with Professor Péter Sótonyi on the occasion that he got the Senate’s unanimous support this spring and President of the Republic János Áder entrusted him to be the head of the University for a second term.
… That’s quite true, I have an enormous desire for freedom too, but I could “only” satisfy it in my work at the university. I have so limited free time that I might as well call it non-existent. When I became a dean in 2012, my primary goal was indeed to help the university regain its independence. Although most people estimated our chance for success less than one per thousand, we still achieved it.
Why was is so important for the university to regain its independence?
We owed it to our predecessors because our school, which is the third veterinary training institute in the world, had been operating independently for the longest time and had functioned to its full potential when it was independent. Let me remind you of the golden age in the early 20th century which lay the foundations for the international reputation of our veterinary education! School mergers caused deterioration. I met many valuable people at the St. Stephen University but our research area, education style and traditions are significantly different from those of agrarian higher education institutions. We are closer to medical training. That’s what we grew out of, too. The connection between human and veterinary healthcare is further strengthened by the increasing significance of food safety. By preserving the health of livestock, we are protecting an enormous value in agriculture. On the other hand, pet healthcare is dominated by the owners’ emotions. Our international awareness is highly important – we must show ourselves to the world. Nothing supports this statement better than the fact that our students come from 54 countries. Finally, submitting tenders on our own has helped our Alma Mater to obtain significant funding even within the past 3 years.
You needed courage for this success, too.
I don’t have much to lose. I am a professor of Anatomy. Teaching 12 hours per week is refreshing for me. If I hadn’t felt the inner drive to help the university become independent for the future of our profession, I probably wouldn’t have stepped into the ring. I am not at all attracted by executive prestige. Consequently, I may sometimes go further than others. I often get feedback like: “Sótonyi, how dare you say that?” I always speak my mind. That’s what I was appreciated for in my family and then in the university community and now nationally, too, because they expect me to voice my opinion as the president of the Batthyány Society of Professors. As far as this society is concerned, I would like to increase the participation of young professors with civic values who have a critical approach and seek the best answers to Hungary’s current problems. Recently I became the vice president of the Steering Committee of the Loránd Eötvös Research Network. I think I was given these assignments because I always represent my opinion consistently and sincerely.
I get the strength to meet the new challenges from my family who support me in everything. My daughter, Kata is a veterinarian while my son, Tamás is an economist. Let me note here how grateful I am to my wife who has always stood by me with faith and persistence, and encouraged me in whatever challenge came my way.
How do you look back on your term as rector, which started in the summer of 2016?
Like a rebirth. We had to create the basis for our new existence as a university. We have implemented organizational and operational changes which lay the foundations for our development and now we are considered as one of the top universities in Hungary. We launched the planning and design process of new buildings and training centres, for which we got outstanding support from the government. All of this was fortunately coupled with a partnership that developed between the chancellor and me, and it’s often cited as an example for cooperation in higher education. I believe continuity is vital for conducting long-term construction projects and I can proudly say that all my associates support me in these goals.
What goals did you set for the next five-year term?
I believe my most important challenge is to bring together a research and education team that is able to launch the university’s new golden age. By the time these large-scale construction projects are completed, I want a world-class scientific community to use the wonderful infrastructure, thus increasing the international embeddedness of Hungarian research. To achieve this goal, we need to find and attract such people from around the world who are now close to the highest international recognitions and who can then be followed by post-doctoral fellows and PhD students. Thanks to our successful tenders, our five hundred Hungarian and one thousand foreign students, we are able to recruit all talented scientists who want to research and/or teach here. I’ll keep doing my best to scout for these young talents, that’s why I continue to work as the president of the Scientific Students’ Association. It’s very important to operate and develop institutional talent management programmes in order to promote the training of new professionals as well as to ensure a supply of experts with scientific degrees for innovative companies. I believe it’s important to enable 5-6 of our students to join the highly-acclaimed lecturers on the stage of the National Veterinarian Day, and give a presentation too, so that they can already feel being in the bloodstream of science.
I have an enormous faith in today’s youth; I think they are very smart. What they may lack at times is the willingness to struggle hard. Perhaps it is because they were brought up in a different quality of life than we were. We must involve them in the university’s management because it allows them to gather experience. This is how we can replace load-bearing pillars on the go – just like it was done before.
You often refer to the University’s more than two centuries of tradition as a competitive edge envied by many other institutions.
That’s right, but it’s important to understand what it really means. It doesn’t mean that we should work the same way as our ancestors did a hundred or two hundred years ago. Instead, we should follow their example in terms of constantly seeking the opportunity for change. I often use the analogy of the oil lamp: its effectiveness could perhaps have been improved some more but the effort would have been in vain after the incandescent light bulb was invented. In other words: our tradition is the ability to change and to constantly renew our ways.
We must be involved in such research that can be directly applied to real life. Our most recent project is to establish a Research Centre for the Protection Against Infectious Animal Diseases and Medicine Development at our University, in cooperation with the Institute for Veterinary Medical Research, which is closely connected infrastructurally, professionally and intellectually as well. This project will be based on the experimental animal facility soon to be implemented in the framework of a governmental project which, as I already explained at the University’s staff meeting in June, will enable us to carry out all laboratory animal related activities here in Budapest. The new infrastructure will also provide the “groundwork” for the establishment of the Comparative Medical Research Centre.
We are very happy that the government backs the idea of creating a Digital Food Chain Research, Development and Innovation Centre at the University of Veterinary Medicine, which will function as a key food chain centre for data analysis, education, research, development and innovation. Separated from the food chain supervisory system, it will provide practical support for agricultural and food economy players, improve their digitalization as well as promote food chain oriented veterinary education.
One of our key ideas is to establish an international equestrian centre in the area of the Dóra Farm in Üllő, which could be a suitable venue for organizing equestrian training programmes or even international competitions.
To further improve our practical education, we are planning to introduce the 12th practical semester, which is justified by the need for acquiring the so-called Day One Competences. Increasing the number of practical classes would make it easier for us to achieve European and the prospective American accreditation.
How much are you planning to focus on the teaching and field practice of livestock care?
Our primary task is to improve Dóra Farm because efficient veterinary training is impossible without hands-on practical skills and experience, especially when it comes to livestock care. I mentioned earlier that we launched our highly successful “on-duty week” field practice programme, where students, in shifts of ten, spend a whole week on the farm with the animals. Our experience and the feedback so far show that the programme helped students reinforce their resolve and personality. It’s vital to develop an emotional bond and natural thinking, partly to counterbalance the typically excessive use of technical devices among our young people.
Interview and photo: Gusztáv Balázs, editor chief of the UNIVET Magazine.