22 Dec How Did Carter Page Get a PhD from SOAS?
The Guardian is reporting today that Carter Page — Donald Trump’s bumbling former foreign-policy advisor, who has been interviewed quite extensively by the FBI regarding his contacts with Russia — earned a PhD from SOAS in 2011 after failing his defence twice. Here are some snippets from the story:
Page first submitted his thesis on central Asia’s transition from communism to capitalism in 2008. Two respected academics, Professor Gregory Andrusz, and Dr Peter Duncan, were asked to read his thesis and to examine him in a face-to-face interview known as a viva.
Andrusz said he had expected it would be “easy” to pass Page, a student at the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas). He said it actually took “days and days” to wade through Page’s work. Page “knew next to nothing” about social science and seemed “unfamiliar with basic concepts like Marxism or state capitalism,” the professor said.
The viva, held at University College, London, went badly. “Page seemed to think that if he talked enough, people would think he was well-informed. In fact it was the reverse,” Andrusz said. He added that Page was “dumbfounded” when the examiners told him he had failed.
Their subsequent report was withering. It said Page’s thesis was “characterised by considerable repetition, verbosity and vagueness of expression”, failed to meet the criteria required for a PhD, and needed “substantial revision”. He was given 18 months to produce another draft.
Page resubmitted in November 2010. Although this essay was a “substantial improvement” it still didn’t merit a PhD and wasn’t publishable in a “learned journal of international repute”, Andrusz noted. When after a four-hour interview, the examiners informed him he had failed again, Page grew “extremely agitated”.
After this second encounter, Andrusz and Duncan both resigned as Page’s examiners. In a letter to Soas, they said it would be “inappropriate” for them to carry on following Page’s “accusation of bias” and his apparent attempts to browbeat them. Andrusz said he was stunned when he discovered Page had joined Trump’s team.
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.”
I don’t think it is technically accurate to say that Page “failed” his defence twice. It seems more likely that each time he received a “not pass, but with major corrections” — which is not the same thing as a fail under SOAS’s PhD regulations. If a student fails, he or she cannot resubmit.
That said, I have never heard of a SOAS doctoral student being offered “not pass, but with major corrections” twice. The current regulations, which date back to at least 2014, specifically provide (section 6.9) that “[c]andidates for MPhil or PhD who are ‘not pass, but with major corrections’ are permitted one re-entry to examination.” They also require the revised dissertation be submitted within 12 months of the defence, while Page was given 18 months. It is possible, of course, that the regulations were different in 2010. But I think it’s unlikely.
It is also strange that SOAS would simply replace the original examiners with new ones after two “not pass” results and a subsequent allegation of bias. Why would a student who failed to correct his dissertation twice be given a third bite of the apple with different examiners? Page is hardly the first student to allege bias when he received a failing mark — and it’s not like he’s Saif Gaddafi or anything.
Something is seriously wrong here. SOAS is a world-class university with very high academic standards — one I’m proud to be associated with. The administration owes all of us an explanation. Hiding behind data privacy is not acceptable.
NOTE: SOAS’s Guidance for Examiners says candidates have 18 months to resubmit and at least mentions the possibility of examiners recommending “a further referral to revise and resubmit the thesis.” I am not sure how the Guidance can be reconciled with the PhD Regulations, and I presume the latter are binding.