The Information Commissioner’s Office of the United Kingdom is poised to uphold the University of London’s refusal to name Republic of China in-exile President Tsai Ing-wen’s 1984 Ph.D. thesis examiners. Lead Case Officer Cressida Woodall authored a preliminary assessment agreeing with the University of London.
“The requested information is associated with an individual in a private/personal capacity. I am satisfied that the individual concerned (the student) would have the reasonable expectation that their personal data – that is; specific information about their thesis – who examined it and when – would not be disclosed to world at large in response to a FOI request.”
Woodall wrote, “I consider it likely that disclosing this information would cause that individual a degree of damage or distress.”
The tempest in a teapot over the thesis periodically boils over into the news media although has been a social media topic since last summer when Tsai belatedly filed her 1984 thesis with the London School of Economics Library, thirty-five years late. Briefly an issue in her recent reelection campaign, Tsai prefers to avoid talking about the controversial thesis entitled “Unfair Trade Practices and Safeguard Actions.”
The London School of Economics says the thesis examiners conducted Tsai’s “viva” on October 16, 1983, a Sunday. LSE cannot or will not identify the two thesis examiners that approved the thesis and directs all questions to the parent University of London.
The University of London, after a six-week internal review, concluded that the names of the thesis examiners was exempt from public disclosure because their names could be found in Tsai’s student records.
Meanwhile, a number of Taiwanese scholars have raised questions about the thesis and whether or not Tsai actually earned the degree bestowed upon her. Because LSE could not issue its own degrees, the University of London awarded a diploma on the recommendation of the two thesis examiners, at least that is how it was supposed to work. The Sunday viva and Tsai’s refusal to name the thesis examiners, along with the silence of both the London School of Economics and the University of London on the examiner identities keeps alive the ongoing question, was there really a thesis oral examination?
Woodall explained: “I note that the thesis in question was examined approximately 35 years ago. Any concern about this one, thesis is therefore historic at this point. Other than UL demonstrating that it is open and transparent, the specifics of your request do not have a wider societal legitimate interest. You have not presented evidence that there are long-standing and systemic irregularities with UL’s examination of theses.”
The preliminary assessment included reference to two other cases. In 2019, the University of Leicester refused to name the entire roster of outside examiners for an eight-year period and the refusal was upheld. In 2018, The Open University refused to name two Ph.D. thesis examiners but did offer a general description of their qualifications.
If the Information Commissioner adopts the preliminary assessment as a final decision the next step is a Tribunal appeal. The ICO has indicated the corona virus has altered the agency timeline and when a final decision will be issued is unknown.
Now, Woodall has entered a new question into the controversy. What kind of “damage or distress” could Tsai possibly suffer from disclosure of the identity of her examiners if they actually approved the thesis?