Kenn Nakata Steffensen
The Guardian reports that Donald Trump’s former foreign policy advisor, Carter Page, “failed” his PhD viva twice at the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies. As the degree was eventually awarded, Page did not fail as such, but was given two more chances to bring his work up to a passable standard. The two examiners acted correctly and with professional integrity by resigning when Page accused them of bias. The emphasis in the Guardian article is on how the examiners found Page’s work to be intellectually sub-standard. The awarding institution’s statement to The Guardian and the sparse information publicly available about the award of the doctorate, however, raises questions about the quality and transparency of supervision and examination at the university. According to The Guardian:
Soas refuses to identify the academics who eventually passed Page’s PhD thesis, citing data protection rules.
In a statement, Soas said it had “proper and robust procedures for the award of PhDs”. It added: “All theses are examined by international experts in their field and are passed only where they meet appropriate high academic standards.”
In normal circumstances, all parties involved in the supervision and examination of a thesis would be happy, even proud, for their role to be publicly acknowledged. But the circumstances surrounding Page’s PhD and the secrecy about his eventual examiners is somewhat unusual.
Page’s thesis, The influence of semiperipheral powers on the balance between capitalism and socialism in Central Asia: an analysis of Russia’s impact on governance and the regional energy sector 1987-2007, is held by the SOAS library and recorded by the British Library, as is common practice. Access is restricted, there is no abstract, and no supervisor is named. The original examiners were the sociologist Gregory Andrusz and the political scientist Peter Duncan. Both Professor Andrusz and Dr Duncan have the disciplinary and regional expertise one would expect for a thesis such as Dr Page’s. Whether this is also the case for the scholars who eventually awarded the degree is unknown. SOAS’s refusal to disclose their identities makes it impossible to judge who well qualified they were.
Page first submitted his thesis for examination on an unspecified date in 2008. It “failed to meet the criteria required for a PhD” and he was given 18 months to bring it up to an acceptable standard. He resubmitted in November 2010, but the improved thesis “still didn’t merit a PhD”. He finally succeeded on an unspecified date in 2011, with new examiners. Assuming that the first attempt was as late as possible in 2008, which is to say in December of that year, it took Page at least 23 months rather than the 18 months required to resubmit.
Given its subject matter, the immediate assumption would be that Dr Page’s research was carried out in the Department of Political and International Studies, which has a specialist on Eurasian politics. But it appears from the 2011 Annual Report of the London Middle East Institute that the research took place in the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Studies. The regional focus of Page’s work does not strictly fall under the areas covered by the department he worked in, which does not currently employ any expert on Central Asia.
To make matters even more mysterious, the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Studies is a humanities department with a research and teaching focus on “languages, literatures, film and cultures”. It has no disciplinary expertise in international relations and political economy, which is the subject matter of Page’s thesis. There is a loosely affiliated scholar with expertise in Russia, Central Asia, political studies, and the energy sector. But the nature of her affiliation means that she could not have acted as PhD supervisor at the time of the second and third examinations. Dr Shirin Akiner was a lecturer in Central Asian studies at SOAS until 2008 and Page contributed to a book edited by her in 2004. Dr Akiner’s professional biography reads as follows:
Dr Shirin Akiner has long firsthand experience of Central Asia and has authored seven monographs and over 75 scholarly articles on such topics as Islam, ethnicity, political change and security challenges in Central Asia. In 2006 she was awarded the Sir Percy Sykes Memorial Medal by the Royal Society for Asian Affairs for her contribution to Asian studies. In December 2008 she was awarded Honorary Fellowship of Ancien Association of NATO Defense College. Since 2010, she has been Special Advisor to UK Parliamentary Groups on Central Asian States. She has held research and teaching posts at the University of London, 1974-2008, and visiting professorships in a number of universities in different countries. Since 2008, she has been a Senior Fellow of the Cambridge Central Asia Forum, University of Cambridge, and Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. She was Rapporteur to the major UNESCO project ‘Integral Study of the Silk Roads’ (1988-97) and has acted as consultant for several award-winning radio and television documentaries on Central Asia. She is a frequent contributor to international media networks (https://www.facebook.com/events/267826706717780/).
Shirin Akiner’s employment with SOAS seems to have come to an end in 2008 when she reached the retirement age of 65. In the same year she took on her current role as research associate in Near and Middle Eastern Studies. Holders of this honorary status “are not expected, or permitted, to teach whilst at SOAS, although pro-bono contributions to teaching and research are encouraged where appropriate”. Since Dr Akiner seems to be the person connected with the awarding department whose expertise most closely matches that of Carter Page’s research, it would be natural and permissible for her to have been involved in his research, but presumably not formally as his supervisor after 2008. On the face of it, SOAS regulations would have required another member of academic staff to have taken over supervision when Akiner’s status changed from employed lecturer to affiliated research associate. Good academic practice would require the new supervisor to have regional expertise in Central Asia and disciplinary expertise in politics. As far as can be established, there has been no such person employed by the awarding department since 2008.
Page’s home department thus seems to have had no expert suitably qualified and formally authorised to supervise his project, only an honorary affiliate. Her right to supervise research ended when her employment came to an end in the year of the first unsuccessful viva. The Department of Near and Middle Eastern Studies is an improbable location within SOAS’s institutional structure to conduct social science research on Russian-Central Asian relations. There may be legitimate reasons why a political science thesis was written in a language department that does not cover the part of the world researched by Dr Page, but these are not immediately apparent. SOAS ought therefore, to dispel any doubts about its “proper and robust procedures for the award of PhDs”, disclose who supervised the thesis in its final form, who examined it the third and final time, and why it seems that revision took longer than the permitted maximum of 18 months.
More generally, SOAS and other British universities ought to move towards greater transparency surrounding the supervision, examination and award of doctorates, as is common in many other countries. Just stating that their procedures are “proper and robust” while refusing to substantiate the claim by naming the “international experts” who examined a thesis does not instill confidence.