The latest decision in a growing number of Freedom of Information cases over Republic of China in-exile President Tsai Ing-wen’s 1984 PhD thesis brings ridicule from United Kingdom Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham. The controversial thesis started an academic firestorm last year when Tsai Ing-wen filed her thesis entitled “Unfair Trade Practices and Safeguard Actions” with the London School of Economics Library, thirty-five years late.
The thesis submitted by Tsai, after much prodding by Taiwanese social media, appears to be a draft document with footnote issues, pagination problems, and handwritten marks and notations. The thesis, which was to have been filed with three British libraries, could not be found in any of them prior to June 2019. Tsai refuses to name the two thesis examiners who purportedly approved the thesis after a Sunday viva exam on October 16,1983.
President Tsai’s stonewalling, combined with conflicting stories from the London School of Economics and the University of London, have led to a half-dozen Freedom of Information requests from different people for further information about the thesis and the circumstances surrounding its long absence from the library. The University of London has blamed Senate House Library staff with losing its copy, however the University has yet to provide acquisition documentation that the library actually did receive the thesis in 1984. Some scholars have suggested that Tsai never completed her course of study and did not submit an approved, final thesis as required.
The various requests to the two schools have been refused, where they are piling up at the Information Commissioner’s Office. The ICO has denied my request for the names of the two thesis examiners saying that disclosing the identities might cause President Tsai “distress” and violate her right to privacy. Now, Information Commissioner Denham has denied a scholar’s request for further information about the October 16, 1983 viva session.
In upholding the secrecy of the viva, the ICO decision went much further than simply telling the scholar the viva is off-limits to inquiry. Instead, Denham abandoned her role as a neutral enforcement officer of the Freedom of Information Act and became President Tsai’s personal advocate adopting, without proof from student and library records, Tsai’s claim of timely thesis submission. Further, Denham’s decision goes beyond the scholar’s request and ridicules alleged proponents of “fake thesis” theories.
Denham’s views of a skeptical and questioning Taiwanese public are laced with sarcasm and derision. The language of the ICO decision speaks for itself and reveals Denham’s abandonment of regulatory neutrality.
“The then-Miss Tsai was awarded a PhD in 1984 by the University which, at that time, conferred degrees on students of the London School of Economics and Political Science (the “LSE”) –which did not have its own degree-awarding powers. The original thesis that Miss Tsai submitted has been lost in the intervening years.”
“The Complainant drew to the Commissioner’s attention the controversy surrounding President Tsai’s thesis. He argued that there was a public interest in understanding how President Tsai had come by her PhD given that she had made frequent reference to her degree.”
“This is not the first time that the Commissioner has had to deal with requests related to President Tsai.”
“The Commissioner finds it somewhat difficult to describe the “fake thesis/degree” theory as it lacks coherence. In broad terms, the theory alleges that the University or the LSE (the “corrupt” institution varies from allegation to allegation) conspired in 1984 to award the then-Miss Tsai a PhD to which she was not entitled—presumably for the express purpose of manipulating the Taiwanese presidential elections of 2016 and 2020—and is now trying to cover its tracks. Another alternative theory is that the PhD was never conferred and President Tsai has simply invented it. According to this version, the LSE and/or the University have conspired to fabricate the original records (and the degree award) to either curry favor with government of Taiwan or to increase their own prestige by associating themselves with a head of government.”
“Whilst the Commissioner does not consider that the keenest “fake thesis” theory supporters would be “satisfied” by any information that the University could produce, she does accept that information of this type would shed some light on the way that the University previously awarded degrees and whether, in this particular case, that process was followed correctly—especially given President Tsia’s prominent role in public life.”
“The Commissioner considers that the negligible public interests in this case are considerably outweighed by President Tsai’s right to privacy.”
“The Commissioner also notes that President Tsai has filed a defamation suit against individuals who have questioned the authenticity of her PhD and thesis.”
“President Tsai has not given her consent to the disclosure of this information (as far as the Commissioner is aware).
“If the University were to disclose President Tsai’s personal data it would be doing so without her consent and contrary to her reasonable expectations. The Commissioner considers that this would cause considerable distress.”
“Given that contemporaneous records exist demonstrating that a PhD was conferred upon President Tsai (undermining the argument the PhD was created at a later date), in order for the “1984 conspiracy” to make sense, the Commissioner is being asked to attribute extraordinary powers of foresight to the University. In order for the “fake thesis” theory to make sense, the University must have considered the then-Miss Tsai to have been so remarkable a student that it was worthwhile disregarding the usual safeguards of academic integrity so that in thirty years’ time she would be more likely to win a presidential election. The Commissioner considers such a proposition to be fanciful at best.”
The scholar, who wishes not to be named, did not advance any “fake thesis” theory but merely asked about the scope of President Tsai’s viva session. An appeal is planned of the ICO decision to the Information Review Tribunal where a judge will decide if the viva inquiry may proceed.