After a long silence about the controversial 1983 PhD thesis of Republic of China in-exile President Tsai Ing-wen, the University of London has intervened in a Freedom of Information case pending in the United Kingdom. The University has entered the FOI case brought by a Taiwanese-American to determine if President Tsai’s October 16, 1983 PhD viva examination was a full PhD exam or if it was instead a Masters to PhD transfer viva. However, instead of bringing clarity to the Information Review Tribunal hearing the case, the University brought obfuscation, ambiguity, and speculation with its formal entry into the case, giving the unavoidable appearance of a cover-up.
The litigation is an outgrowth of the academic firestorm ignited by President Tsai in June 2019 when she submitted her 1983 PhD thesis to the London School of Economics Library, thirty-five years late. Further, the tardy thesis appears to be a draft document with pagination problems, footnote issues, and hand-written notations, including a question mark. The thesis, entitled “Unfair Trade Practices and Safeguard Actions,” was also said to have been submitted to the University of London’s Senate House Library and the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies Library, neither of which received the thesis, according to library staff correspondence.
The international academic brouhaha is now two years old and shows no signs of going away anytime soon. President Tsai’s refusal to name her thesis examiners, who Tsai brags were so impressed with the thesis they wanted to award her a double degree, has added fuel to the fire. Tsai attended the London School of Economics and Political Science but accepted a PhD degree from the University of London because LSE was not then qualified to issue its own degree. Tsai’s adviser at LSE was Michael Elliott who lacked his own PhD degree making the thesis examination critical to a valid award.
The thesis viva examination was conducted on October 16, 1983, a Sunday, according to LSE which refers all other questions from the public to the University of London. For its part the University of London has stonewalled and refused to answer questions about the viva examination, including even the identity of the examiners. The University has cited President Tsai’s privacy as its reason for silence.
In its submission to the Information Review Tribunal, the University admits it has not asked President Tsai for her permission to discuss her student days. School officials pick and choose what they want to tell the public so the court submission was carefully vetted and worded making its obfuscation and ambiguity one of intent rather than sloppy wordsmiths. The University of London submission to the court, as told by Data Protection and Information Compliance Manager Kit Good, tells its own story.
“In some cases, the University may weigh up the legitimate interests and confirm a qualification has been obtained….Recipients of PhD degrees in almost all cases have their thesis listed in the publicly searchable University library and therefore the confirmation of qualification can be determined via this route.”
“The copy held by the library was lost or mis-shelved sometime between the mid-1980s and 2010s over which period there were numerous structural changes to the library.”
The ambiguity of this speculation about the fate of President Tsai’s thesis goes to the phrase “structural changes” and whether it is referring to staff reorganizations or physical remodeling of the library facility. The difference, which cannot be parsed from the University’s choice of words, would put the blame for loss of Tsai’s thesis on either librarian negligence or on contractors who mistook the thesis for construction debris.
The University of London speculation that President Tsai’s thesis was lost sometime over a thirty year period is disingenuous as Senate House librarians have yet to establish with acquisition records that the University ever possessed the thesis in the first place. The thesis could not have been put on the wrong shelf or tossed out with the trash if the library never had it. The lack of an acquisition record for Tsai’s thesis makes the University’s submission to the Tribunal with its speculation of loss a classic example of the legal phrase “a fact not in evidence.”
The University of London also cites an October 2019 public relations statement by LSE as evidence of the validity of President Tsai’s PhD degree. The University does not explain to the Tribunal how an announcement, decades later, by a subordinate school unable to award its own degree, could verify the University decision to award a diploma.
The University does make an admission. “In some cases, there is a legitimate interest in confirming details of an individual’s degree qualification.” However, no need of confirmation details in President Tsai’s case. “The qualification has been confirmed. The thesis is available online.”
The University ambiguity and speculation are accompanied by obfuscation. The school’s submission to the Tribunal explains that no harm has been done because President Tsai did not need her degree to run for the ROC presidency. “The degree qualification is not essential for a political career in the same way that a medical degree would be for a physician.”
“A PhD thesis is not a professional requirement for a public career and is not analogous to a scenario such as surgeon and a medical degree. The graduate in question here was not elected to public office at the time they were a registered student.”
However, the University of London did not tell the Tribunal that President Tsai used her PhD to obtain teaching positions at Soochow University and National Chengchi University in Taiwan. If the PhD was not legitimate, Tsai would have violated ROC criminal fraud laws. Whether or not a statute of limitations would preclude prosecution does not diminish President Tsai’s culpability for academic fraud in the event the thesis was not legitimate and her University degree was improperly awarded.
The University of London’s submission to the Tribunal falls short of full disclosure and does not tell the court that President Tsai used her PhD for commercial purposes, founding and operating TaiMed Biologics, which continued to use Tsai’s degree from the University of London for commercial purposes after her election to public office.
Meanwhile, another FOI case before the Tribunal awaits decision on release of the thesis examiner identities. A decision is expected in June. The University of London did not intervene in that case.