Birmingham concedes flaws in method but stands by decision not to limit access to controversial thesis

February 9, 2007

Alexandra Hughes, Birmingham University's pro vice-chancellor for quality, was unequivocal. "We are very concerned at the distress this has caused you... and take this very seriously," she wrote to Peter Ohlson in April 2005.

Mr Ohlson alleged that a hypothesis in a PhD thesis by student Charlotte Exon - that his stepfather, Rudolf Schwarz, was a Nazi sympathiser - was based on a series of errors, omissions and distortions. The university took his concerns so seriously that it immediately placed the thesis on restricted access.

Professor Hughes said she would "welcome" the opportunity to meet Mr Ohlson "face to face", and offered to send a delegation to Mr Ohlson's home in Cornwall.

In subsequent letters, she also confirmed that "detailed and independent scrutiny" of the contentious parts of the thesis would be carried out by an independent reviewer. Mr Ohlson was told to be specific, to ensure the university could investigate in more than "general terms".

But 19 months later, after Mr Ohlson had spent months submitting an extremely detailed critique of the thesis, he was left wondering how seriously the university really had taken the matter.

No face-to-face meeting took place. A review of the thesis was undertaken, but by an expert whose identity was never revealed to Mr Ohlson. The reviewer did not give the thesis "detailed scrutiny", but looked at it, in the reviewer's words, in the "broadest possible terms... not subjecting the work to the kind of forensic scrutiny one would require from an external examiner".

Moreover, the university also reneged on a commitment to implement the reviewer's recommendations: that the thesis be made available to other scholars only together with an "extremely detailed errata slip" and alongside original source material.

To Mr Ohlson's frustration, he was told by Adrian Randall, Birmingham's dean of arts, last November - ending a process lasting almost two years - that the independent review should never have taken place. He said the thesis could never have been revoked or even altered, as it had been passed as a PhD, and "remains, fixed in time, as such, as a piece of primary research presented and accepted for an academic award".

Despite Mr Ohlson's concerns that the reviewer had not properly engaged with his complaint, this report, delivered in July 2006, did accept that there were serious problems with Dr Exon's thesis.

With regard to Dr Exon's use of a taped interview, the reviewer said that while he "did not get the impression anywhere of deliberate mendacity... there are six or seven instances... where it is evident that Dr Exon should have exercised far more care in reproducing the material.

"The conclusion I draw from all this is a certain naivety on the part of Dr Exon with regard to the use of primary material."

He said that "given the controversial nature" of suggestions of Nazi sympathies, "it is most unfortunate that Dr Exon appears in some instances to have been less than rigorous with the material at hand and seems to have simplified or debased her argument by ignoring certain crucial details".

The reviewer said he was not qualified to judge the validity of Dr Exon's statistics, but added that "he would take on trust" the view of a statistical expert engaged by Mr Ohlson that "the methodology may well have been flawed".

"At the same time I would be surprised if her examiners were any more qualified for assessing this task than myself," he wrote.

But the reviewer also praised her use of these statistics because "it moves the argument towards a more objective level of discussion than overreliance on anecdotal information". He found "Dr Exon's use of biographical data has not been very accurate" and noted "several instances where dates and details have been left out or are contradictory". He found "evidence of sloppiness" in her use of letters to support her arguments.

He said he was concerned by Dr Exon's use of claims that Mr Schwarz held right-wing views to support her arguments about his alleged Nazi sympathies. Without addressing Mr Ohlson's evidence that the comments, via a telephone interview, were denied by the supposed source, the reviewer said: "Holding right-wing sentiments is by no means the same as suggesting Nazi leanings. I'm therefore a little surprised that this important distinction was not picked up by the examiners."

The reviewer concluded: "It seems clear that the work contains many more inaccuracies, contradictions and ambiguities than were evident from a first reading of her work... certainly many of the points highlighted by Mr Ohlson would have to be urgently revisited were the thesis to be published as a book... "Though some of these inaccuracies are undoubtedly regrettable... they don't invalidate the thesis as a whole. Despite the problematic nature of her treatment of the Nazi period, I think Dr Exon presents a measured and balanced interpretation."

He said he could "find no evidence that she was engaged in a mendacious campaign to smear a figure she clearly admires".

The reviewer recommended that "an extremely detailed errata slip" be placed in the thesis and made available alongside the primary source material.

In a letter to Mr Ohlson last July, Anne Ruston, director of Birmingham's academic quality unit, said: "We agreed that we would abide by whatever came out of the review, and you will see that the reviewer is recommending that we include an errata slip with the thesis... Once the errata slip is finalised, we will put the thesis on open access."

Mr Ohlson protested about the lack of detail in the reviewer's report and suggested it was itself flawed in failing to deal with his complaints point by point, and in apparently misunderstanding several elements of his complaint.

But last November, Professor Randall had the final word. He conceded that Mr Ohlson "is able to demonstrate significant lacunae in the finished thesis, some clear examples of inaccurate historical identification and some questionable historical analysis".

"The failings of historical accuracy and weaknesses of method within the Exon thesis have also been noted by the external adviser." But he concluded: "Her PhD thesis stands as a completed and quality-assured piece of work in its own right which cannot be, and should not be, subject to any further internal or external requests for change... "The fact that Dr Exon's thesis contains errors, even highly misleading ones, does not constitute good reason for singling this thesis out for particular treatment or for the coercive inclusion of errata slipsIIt cannot now be corrected, revised or revoked."

UNIVERSITY RESPONSE 2005

"We are very concerned at the distress this has caused you... and take this very seriously."

April 2005 - Alexandra Hughes, Birmingham University pro vice-chancellor for quality and standards university response 2006

"The fact that Dr Exon's thesis contains errors, even highly misleading ones, does not constitute good reason for singling out this thesis for particular treatment or for the coercive inclusion of errata slips... It cannot now be corrected, revised or revoked."

November 2006 - Adrian Randall, dean of arts

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