Elizabeth Denham, the Information Commissioner for the United Kingdom, says the University of London was within the law to withhold the identity of Tsai Ing-wen’s 1984 doctoral thesis examiners. Denham also offered up an explanation why Tsai’s thesis was missing from the London School of Economics Library claiming the phantom document was lost during restructuring of the library. Tsai Ing-wen is the president of the Republic of China in-exile and has been dogged for the better part of a year with allegations of academic fraud.
Although the LSE Library maintains the thesis was never filed until 2019, thirty-five years late; according to Denham, the University of London story is different with the thesis being timely submitted but then lost by the LSE Library. On June 11, 2020, Denham’s office issued a decision upholding the University of London secrecy. The twelve page decision explains the secrecy rationale and provides new information about LSE’s alleged loss of thesis during restructuring.
“The examiners’ names are clearly the personal data of those individuals; their names relate to those individuals and they could be identified from their names….However, this information can also be categorised as President Tsai’s personal data as it concerns the thesis she produced. It therefore relates to her and, since she is named in the request, she can be identified from it.”
“The complainant is interested in the legitimacy of President Tsai’s 1984 thesis. He is concerned that the thesis was not filed with the LSE’s library until 2019 and that the filed copy appears to be a draft document. He says that this graduate had a non-Doctoral instructor as an Advisor, which he also considers casts doubt on the thesis’ validity. In the Commissioner’s view, the legitimacy or otherwise of President Tsai’s thesis is a private concern for the complainant. However, given the position of one of the data subjects – President Tsai – there may be some broader public interest in the matter.”
“In its submission to the Commissioner, the University has explained that recipients of PhD degrees in almost all cases have their thesis listed in the publicly searchable University library.”
“The University has told the Commissioner that it holds a copy of the examination report for the thesis and the thesis copyright submission form. There is also a record of the individual and the thesis on the University’s pass list published in that year.”
“The original copy held by the University library was lost or mis-shelved sometime between mid‐1980s and 2010s over which period there were numerous structural changes to the library.”
“The University has advised that, in its responses to separate FOI requests, it has stated that it holds records of the viva and the pass list in regard to this graduate – President Tsai – and can therefore confirm the award of the degree.”
“The University’s position is that the validity of President Tsai’s 1984 thesis is confirmed because the thesis is published and available online. Other information is held – such as the viva associated with the thesis and the University’s contemporaneous pass list containing President Tsai’s name – that also supports a position that the thesis is legitimate. In addition, a public statement to that effect has been made by the college at which President Tsai was registered.”
“It is necessary to balance the legitimate interests in disclosure against the data subjects’ interests or fundamental rights and freedoms. In doing so, it is necessary to consider the impact of disclosure.”
“The University says that, like all PhD graduates, the individual in this case has a reasonable expectation that their qualification will be a matter of public record via a library or other public register. There is no expectation that records of the examination process will be disclosed.”
“It is not a requirement for the role of President of the Republic of China to have a PhD. If it were, and President Tsai’s PhD was not legitimate, that might be a concern. What is of issue here is whether the University’s process for assessing and awarding PhDs is valid in all cases.”
“It is unfortunate that the copy of President Tsai’s thesis that the University library held was lost or misplaced between the mid-1980s and 2010, during various restructuring changes to the library. This may have been why that version of the thesis was not published in the period after 1984. However, in response to a request for it from the LSE, President Tsai provided LSE with a copy of the thesis that she held. The LSE has published a copy of this thesis that it received from President Tsai, since 2019.”
“It may or may not be a draft version, but this is the version of her thesis that President Tsai still held, some 35 years after first writing it. The Commissioner understands that the paper copy of the thesis that the University received from President Tsai and which it has converted to an electronic version and published is the only paper copy it has been able to locate at this point.”
“At issue here is whether President Tsai’s PhD was valid and properly awarded by the University and, more generally, whether the public can trust the University’s processes. The complainant has his particular concerns, but the Commissioner considers that the University has demonstrated sufficient transparency in the matter of this PhD thesis.”
The next step of appeal to learn the identity of the thesis examiners is a court proceeding before the Information Rights Tribunal. However, Tsai Ing-wen can end the whole matter by instructing the University of London to reveal the examiners’ identity and make the viva report available to the public.
If the thesis examiners approved the thesis, Tsai will suffer no distress from their identity being revealed. If the examiners liked her thesis as much as she has claimed she should be glad to let them speak.
This report has been updated to reflect the University of London’s clarification that “restructuring” meant reorganization not remodeling. Thus the University’s speculation about the thesis absence from the library now implies the fault is that of Senate House librarians not construction workers. The University has not offered a theory why the thesis was also missing from the London School of Economics library or the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies library.