New Brunswick

UNB releases controversial U.S. politician's PhD dissertation after months of refusals

The University of New Brunswick suddenly made Douglas Mastriano's dissertation public in August, in a move that appeared to undermine excuses used to keep it secret in the first place.

Until recently, details of Douglas Mastriano's Canadian doctorate had been under lock and key

A bald middle aged man in a blue suit speaks into a microphone with the outline of Pennsylvania behind him.
Doug Mastriano, a Pennsylvania state senator seen at a May appearance, received a doctorate from the University of New Brunswick in 2013. (Carolyn Kaster/The Associated Press)

After months insisting it was not possible — or even legal — to share a maligned doctoral dissertation by controversial U.S. politician Doug Mastriano, the University of New Brunswick suddenly made the document public in August, in a move that appeared to undermine excuses used to keep it secret in the first place.

Mastriano, the Republican nominee running to be governor of Pennsylvannia, rose to prominence there as an early opponent of mask and vaccine mandates to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, and as an ardent supporter of former president Donald Trump.

A state senator, author and retired army colonel, Mastriano obtained a PhD in history from UNB in 2013, toward the end of his military career.

Numerous attempts to access the dissertation that Mastriano wrote in order to earn the doctorate have, however, been repelled for the last two years.

"The choice to embargo a thesis is at the discretion of the author, not the institution," UNB's Heather Campbell wrote in May, while rejecting a CBC request to access Mastriano's dissertation.

A statue of a man pointing a bayonette and looking through the sights.
A statue of First World War hero Sgt. Alvin C. York stands on the grounds of the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville, Tenn. UNB awarded a doctorate in history to Pennsylvania governor candidate Doug Mastriano in 2013 based on his research about York. (Mark Humphrey/Associated Press)

She said an author's reasons for not wanting work shared "are not scrutinized," and an embargo could last indefinitely under university rules.

"It is by default for four years, but an author may request an extension," she wrote.

That is contrary to the policy of many North American universities, which view scholarship as a public good to be shared except in rare circumstances.

For instance, York University in Toronto says on its website that its policy is to allow the embargo of a dissertation for a maximum of three years, and only when it meets certain conditions and is agreed to be necessary by a student's supervisor.

"As a publicly funded institution, York University has an obligation to ensure that research produced by its graduate students is available for the benefit of the public, particularly by making successfully defended theses and dissertations available through York University Libraries and Library and Archives Canada," states the university policy.

'They really divulged nothing'

Nevertheless UNB used its more restrictive policy to deny at least four separate requests since 2020 to view the dissertation. 

Chris Rodkey, a Pennsylvania Democrat running to represent his local district in the state election this fall, made one of those requests. 

Rodkey, who has a PhD himself, was surprised in November 2020 when he could not find a record of Mastriano's dissertation in UNB's library system.

That changed to shock when UNB responded to a formal written request for information by declining to disclose even the title of Mastriano's dissertation.

Fall foliage is in the foreground, with two red brick campus buildings in the background
The University of New Brunswick refused multiple requests to release the doctoral dissertation of Douglas Mastriano claiming it would violate his privacy rights but then reversed itself without immediately explaining why in August. (University of New Brunswick)

"Since this request is asking for the personal information of a third-party's educational history, we are obligated to protect the privacy of said individual," UNB's Sarah DeVarenne wrote in a letter responding to Rodkey's request

"They didn't confirm or deny anything, and they really divulged nothing," Rodkey said in an interview this week.

"I thought it was strange that they wouldn't comment or they wouldn't give me any information whatsoever."

Mastriano led hearings in Pennsylvania in November 2020 that gave Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani a forum to allege widespread fraud in Joe Biden's election win in that state. He also attended the pro-Trump rally in Washington D.C. on Jan. 6, 2021 that devolved into a deadly riot.

"The one guy that supported election integrity and supported me right from the beginning is Doug Mastrianio," reads an endorsement from Donald Trump on Mastriano's social media platforms.

CBC News has not received any replies to Mastriano's campaign for comment. Mastriano has barred reporters from attending his events, garnering national media attention in the U.S. because of it. 

Doctorate has been used to counter criticism

Mastriano cites the UNB doctorate in his campaign materials, and the dissertation has been used to counter criticisms of some of his controversial statements and actions that have emerged during the campaign, like an old photo showing him at an event dressed as a confederate soldier.

"Media MELT DOWN that Mastriano apparently once posed as a civil war historical figure," tweeted campaign legal advisor Jenna Ellis in response to that controversy. "He has a PhD in HISTORY."

As Mastriano's profile grew, a variety of media outlets and other parties attempted to access his heavily criticized dissertation on First World War hero Sgt. Alvin C. York but UNB insisted its policies and privacy laws prohibited it

In addition to Rodkey and the CBC, UNB also rejected requests for Mastriano's dissertation from the Associated Press and from University of Oklahoma graduate student James Gregory, who has become a vocal critic of errors in Mastriano's historical research.

"I don't care about Mastriano's politics. I live in Oklahoma," said Gregory in an interview.

"This had nothing to do with politics. This was just purely due diligence within the field of being a historian."

List of errors given to university

UNB told Gregory in 2021 that Mastriano's dissertation about Sgt. York was largely reprinted as a commercially available book in 2014. Based on that information, Gregory gave the university a list of errors it should check for in the Mastriano dissertation. 

I find it suspicious, at the least, that they would even allow that.- Graduate student James Gregory

The university still did not allow him to view the document but launched a review that led to 21 revisions in Mastriano's original dissertation that were attached in a "corrigendum" in June 2021.

That was not publicly known at the time, however, because of the ongoing embargo on the work enforced by the university.

A sitting man wearing a checkered shirt faces the camera, with stained glass windows in the rear
Chris Rodkey, a Pennsylvania Democrat, was shocked that UNB refused access to even the title of Douglas Mastriano's doctoral dissertation. (Chris Rodkey/Twitter)

Gregory wonders if UNB kept Mastriano's dissertation suppressed to protect his privacy rights or to spare itself embarrassment over errors that it had failed to detect and then rewarded with a degree.

"They were going to bury it again under the embargo where no one could double-check it," said Gregory, describing revisions that were made and then also placed under embargo.

"I find it suspicious, at the least, that they would even allow that."

Further questions about whether Mastriano's privacy rights were really behind the embargo emerged again in August when the university suddenly reversed course and released the dissertation after nine years of secrecy, apparently without Mastriano's permission.

The Associated Press reported last week that Drew Rendall, UNB's dean of graduate studies, informed Mastriano the embargo was being lifted and did so without ever hearing back from the candidate.

Rendall did not respond to a request for an interview about whether his ending of the embargo suggests UNB's prior claims — that the decision was up to Mastriano alone — were untrue.

In an unsigned statement that UNB issued Friday, the school claimed it had learned "recently" that a PhD thesis embargo it did not identify had been extended long past its normal four-year maximum.

"We acknowledge that the extended embargo was contrary to the practice and academic principle of scholarly activity and did not adhere to UNB regulations and guidelines for preparing and submitting graduate student thesis, dissertations and reports," said the statement.

The university did not address false statements its representatives made over the past two years claiming the extended embargo was normal and up to Mastriano alone to end.

Gregory said that based on the now-public document and the 21 revisions made as a result of his 2021 complaint about suspected errors in the work, he is preparing a second, larger challenge to Mastriano's research and UNB's awarding of a PhD based on it.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Robert Jones

Reporter

Robert Jones has been a reporter and producer with CBC New Brunswick since 1990. His investigative reports on petroleum pricing in New Brunswick won several regional and national awards and led to the adoption of price regulation in 2006.

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