The identity of Republic of China in-exile President Tsai Ing-wen’s 1983 PhD thesis examiners may be revealed early this summer as a Freedom of Information lawsuit, Michael Richardson vs. Information Commissioner’s Office, in the United Kingdom nears completion. The controversial London School of Economics thesis entitled “Unfair Trade Practices and Safeguard Actions” triggered an international academic firestorm in June 2019 when President Tsai submitted the tardy thesis to the LSE Library, thirty-five years late.
Not only was the thesis submission more than three decades overdue, the copy presented to LSE, where Tsai studied, was unbound and appears to be a draft document with pagination problems, footnote issues, and handwritten notations including a question mark.
Taiwanese scholars lined up to question the thesis with Professor Dennis Peng, talk show host of the internet news program “True Voice of Taiwan,” the most vocal. Professor Peng’s remarks have earned him a criminal indictment for alleged defamation and potential five year prison term after President Tsai complained to ROC prosecutors. Peng will not be given a jury trial because they are not permitted in the archaic legal system of the exiled Republic of China government.
Tsai was tested on her scholarship at an October 16, 1983 viva examination according to LSE which referred any other questions to the University of London which issued Tsai’s degree. At the time LSE was unable to issue its own degrees and presented the University of London with a pass list to award diplomas. Tsai’s academic advisor was Michael Elliott, who lacked a doctoral degree, thus putting the full burden of assessment on the thesis examiners.
President Tsai, who has bragged the examiners were so impressed with the thesis they wanted to award her a double degree, inexplicably refuses to name them. Following Tsai’s lead, the University of London also refuses to identify the thesis examiners claiming their identification would violate Tsai’s right to privacy.
My complaint to the Information Commissioner of the United Kingdom, Elizabeth Denham, was rejected. Denham took the University of London’s position that Tsai’s right to privacy was more important than public disclosure of the examiners’ identities. Then the matter went to court before the Information Review Tribunal, where it stalled over a territoriality dispute over the scope of the Freedom of Information Act. In February 2021, the Tribunal allowed the lawsuit to proceed. Denham’s office then filed a tardy response pushing the court schedule further back. A ruling in the case is now expected in June.
I have filed a reply to Denham’s submission, outlining why the examiners need to be identified. Denham maintains that disclosure of the examiner identities is not necessary because the validity President Tsai’s PhD thesis “has been met to a extremely large degree” by three facts: the thesis is online, the thesis is listed in an index document, and the University of London claims it holds records of the viva examination.
The fact the thesis is now online, a digital version of the copy submitted by President Tsai Ing-wen in June 2019, and not the version that was assessed, does not address the validity of the 1983 viva examination and instead continues to raise questions about the pagination problems, footnote issues, and hand markings in the online thesis.
Denham also relied on a bibliographic index, Legal Research in the United Kingdom 1905-1984, a quasi-official Institute of Advanced Legal Studies index document, but failed to cite any official IALS record or communication. Further, the Introduction to Legal Research in the United Kingdom 1905-1984 contains a notice which states in part “errors and omissions may have occurred.”
Denham ignored an official IALS email correspondence, dated October 9, 2019, which refutes the bibliographic index entry by stating: “We have been asked many times for this thesis, but we do not have a copy in our collection and we have no record that we ever received the copy that was sent to us.”
Denham has solely relied on an assertion by the University of London, the proverbial fact not in evidence, which falls far short of the “extremely large degree” standard. The University of London’s assertions about its library acquisition of the thesis are contradictory, raising significant and reasonable doubt about the veracity of the University’s assertions about the thesis.
Denham ignored an official email correspondence from the University’s Senate House Library, dated October 9, 2019, which states: “It would seem from our card catalogue records that Senate House Library never received the original copies of this thesis from the External Examiners.”
Denham, relying on University of London assertions rather than on official records or correspondence, speculated, “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 or may not have been why that version was not published in the period after 1984.”
That transparency in this case mandates verification of the viva examination, as the examiners are the gatekeepers of academic integrity and authentication of the thesis validity cannot be hidden from public disclosure or based on mere assertions by the University; a bibliographic index; or a tardy online posting; thirty-five years late.
Denham also relied on a 2019 London School of Economics and Political Science public relations statement as evidence of the thesis validity stating as follows: “In addition, a public statement to that effect has been made by the college at which President Tsai was registered.” Yet in 1983, LSE was unable to issue its own doctoral degrees and deferred to the University of London for the academic qualification to a diploma; further, LSE had no control or supervisory authority over the University of London.
I concede that President Tsai has causative responsibility for a criminal indictment for aggravated defamation against Professor Dennis Peng, one of those persons who have questioned the validity of the thesis; however, public relations statements and news reports do not constitute, in any manner, academic authentication or actual verification of a PhD thesis viva examination; nor does the indictment of Professor Peng constitute academic authentication or actual verification of the viva examination.
That personal data is subject to disclosure when the necessity of verification demands public examination as the safeguard against academic fraud such that one cannot be a secret student and obtain a secret degree from the University of London, thus the privacy of Tsai Ing-wen was breached by inclusion in the London School of Economics and Political Science student directory and by inclusion in the University of London list of graduates because of the necessity of verification; also, the identities of Tsai Ing-wen’s teachers were breached by inclusion in the London School of Economics and Political Science faculty directory because of the necessity of verification; likewise, the identities of Tsai Ing-wen’s thesis examiners demands disclosure because of the necessity of verification and Tsai should have had no expectation of privacy.
That President Tsai Ing-wen has made a Common Law waiver of privacy of the thesis examiner identities by her public statement describing one examiner as a law professor and another as an economist, thus waiving disclosure, as in husband/wife or attorney/client testimonial waivers thus President Tsai opened the door to disclosure of the thesis examiner identities.
That thesis examiners employed by a public body university to perform academic duties, the assessment of scholarship, are rendered for purposes of the Freedom of Information Act as public employees and not private citizens; as such, examiners enjoy no special privacy shield from identity disclosure different from that of a university president, deans, advisers, or teachers and must, of necessity, for verification purposes, be subject to public disclosure of identity.
That current academic practice in the United Kingdom is disclosure of thesis examiners’ identities and that the University of London’s denial of Appellant’s information request is contrary to current academic practice.
Finally, Denham has argued the Tribunal has no authority to order the University of London to develop a plan of correction for Freedom of Information Act non-compliance.
That the authority of the Tribunal to enforce its orders is an inherent power and while remedial actions are more generally associated with injunctive relief than administrative review, the authority to order the University of London to disclose information is not limited if the Tribunal is faced with multiple and/or willful violations of the Freedom of Information Act by the University or its subsidiary affiliate, the London School of Economics and Political Science, and the Tribunal may order the schools to develop a plan of correction to prevent further violations of the FOI Act as part of its disclosure order.
Next, the Information Commissioner’s Office has been ordered to prepare the exhibits for Tribunal examination before formal review of the case may begin. The ICO has been given until May to prepare the exhibits for consideration.
President Tsai Ing-wen could end the United Kingdom litigation by simply providing the names of the examiners and releasing her thesis viva examination report. If the examiners thought she deserved a double degree, as Tsai has claimed, a reasonable person would expect Tsai to release the report. Tsai’s refusal to identity the examiners continues to raise public doubt about the outcome of the viva examination.