Information Review Tribunal Judge Hazel Oliver has rejected the dog-ate-my-homework story of the University of London that the PhD thesis of Republic of China in-exile President Tsai Ing-wen was lost-in-the-library. Although Judge Oliver upheld a secrecy shield about the qualification viva examination of the thesis as Tsai’s personal data the University’s claim that librarians lost the thesis was disregarded.
“The appellant says that the absence of the original thesis from any of the libraries, as required by the University’s rules, indicates that there was no thesis at the time. Having viewed the emails from the libraries and the video from Dr. Peng, it does appear that none of the libraries have a record of the thesis being provided at the time the PhD was awarded in 1984. We accept that the explanation provided by the University that the thesis had been lost or mis-shelved may not be correct, as there is no catalogue or microfilm record of the original thesis.”
“A video of Dr. Peng conducting a search for President Tsai’s PhD thesis on the computer records of the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies (IALS) library, assisted by a member of the library staff….shows that they were unable to find a record of the thesis under President Tsai’s name or title of the thesis. The member of the staff says that if the thesis had gone missing it would be in the catalogue, and as it is not there suggests that the library had not received it.”
“As explained above, it does appear from the evidence that copies of the thesis may not have been provided to the libraries at the time by the examiners, rather than having been lost or mis-shelved.”
The appellant is a Taiwanese-American who sought details about the thesis viva examination and now plans to seek permission to appeal the decision. Under the legal system of the United Kingdom the appellant must seek the judge’s permission to appeal. The appellant believes the court made an error of law on the necessity of transparent verification by shielding the University of London with a cloak of secrecy. The University’s excuse about the library losing a thesis it never had in its collection severely undermines the school’s credibility about unverifed claims concerning the thesis and should have been a red flag for the judge.
President Tsai’s thesis, entitled Unfair Trade Practices and Safeguard Actions, has been at the center of controversy since June 2019 when Tsai filed the thesis with the London School of Economics Library, thirty-five years after it was due on the shelves. Although Tsai attended LSE, the University of London awarded her a PhD degree as her own school could not then issue advanced degrees. Tsai’s advisor at LSE was Michael Elliott, who himself lacked a PhD degree.
Judge Oliver’s rebuke to the University of London is not the first time the school has been slapped over the thesis controversy. In September 2021, the Information Commissioner threatened the University with a citation for contempt of court if it failed to disclose email communications about the thesis that the school had wrongly declared to be President Tsai’s personal data.
“The steps that the University and the LSE have taken in order to locate the missing thesis do not involve President Tsai and the emails do not indicate that she had any involvement in (or even knowledge of) what was happening. Therefore the emails cannot reasonably be said to be relevant to any decision involving President Tsai. She is not the subject of these emails – her thesis is. The Commissioner is thus satisfied that the emails have insufficient connection to President Tsai to be her personal data.”
The University of London backed down and released the requested email messages which have not yet been made available to the public. However, absent a threat of contempt of court, the University of London continues to stonewall requests for information. Presently the school has failed to provide the 1983 thesis examiner regulations as requested, even though no personal data of any sort is sought.
The appellant in the latest Tribunal case “accepts that the University has stated publicly that it holds records of the viva and that President Tsai was awarded a PhD degree.”
“When asked about this by the Judge, he initially said that he didn’t think the University was telling the truth. He went on to say that he can’t say the University is lying, but he hasn’t been able to get a straight answer.”