Taking Back a Doctorate? Not So Fast

Judge says University of Texas at Austin can't revoke a former student's Ph.D. on its own, outside a court of law.

February 15, 2019
 
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The University of Texas at Austin lacks the authority, express or implied, to revoke a former graduate student's Ph.D., a state court determined this week.

The brief judgment by Judge Karin Crump pertains to Suvi Orr, who has been fighting to keep her Ph.D. for years, following allegations of scientific misconduct that led the university to revoke the doctorate.

Orr, now a senior principal scientist at Pfizer, received her doctorate in organic chemistry at Texas in 2008. She saw her dissertation retracted in 2012 over unreliable data. Orr argued then and now that she misread the data and didn’t falsify anything.

Texas nevertheless tried to revoke her degree twice. Orr sued each time, arguing that she wasn’t given the opportunity to defend herself against the misconduct claim and that her former professor is to blame for her situation.

In 2017, a Texas appeals court weighing her second lawsuit granted Orr an injunction, saying that the university could not revoke her Ph.D. through its own disciplinary process -- what Orr called a “kangaroo court” -- outside a court of law.

Gary Susswein, university spokesperson, said via email Thursday that “we’ve read the opinion, respectfully disagree with the holding, and are currently planning to appeal.”

Orr’s attorneys, David Sergi and Anita Kawaja, told Retraction Watch in a statement that the decision is a first step toward restoring Orr’s “reputation and her standing in the scientific community.” The ruling also recognizes that relevant Texas law has been unchanged for decades, in that it ensures conferred degrees can only be rescinded through the “rigid due process” of a lawsuit, they said.

If the university “wants to take a degree away from a former student,” it must file suit in court, “not rely on a [sic] ad hoc process with little or no real due process,” the attorneys added.

Sergi and Kawaja said Orr has “always defended her research, and is frustrated that [Texas] chose support an academic who was, in our opinion, trying to shift the blame for his missteps to our client.” They said that it’s “time to wake up to the fact that they have to hold faculty accountable for their own failures.”

Orr’s dissertation was about synthesis and analysis of organic molecules. She says that she and her professor, Stephen S. Martin, M. June and J. Virgil Waggoner Regents Chair in Chemistry, decided that she would try to synthesize a molecule called Lundurine B. With Martin’s endorsement, Orr says, she presented and defended her dissertation to a committee of five Texas professors.

A paper based on Orr’s work was submitted to a journal three years later, in 2011. A postdoctoral fellow then began to question the data, according to Orr’s most recent lawsuit, leading him to “believe that what was submitted to the journal article was somehow erroneous or otherwise inaccurate.”

Only then did Martin bring a complaint against Orr alleging misconduct, the lawsuit says, noting that the claims against her center on three results of many more. Orr could have “easily excluded” these three from her dissertation with no negative impact on her paper as a whole -- but Martin consented to their inclusion, she said.

“The decision to revoke a Ph.D. is a harsh, severe and rare penalty,” the lawsuit says. “When presented with an otherwise impeccable record such as [Orr’s], who has enjoyed a successful career and maintained her good name and reputation in the face of these outrageous accusations, the university is required to afford the highest of due process protections,” which can only be had in court.

Martin did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Ph.D. revocations are indeed rare -- but they do happen. Jodi Whitaker, a scholar of communication, saw her Ph.D. rescinded in 2017 by Ohio State University. She was promptly demoted from tenure-track professor to lecturer at the University of Arizona. Whitaker's case also involved allegations of falsified data and a retracted paper. Her research was on the real-world effects of violent video games.

Whitaker co-wrote the retracted paper at Ohio State with her supervisor there, who said he was not aware of any inappropriate data manipulation. But some prominent scholars came to her defense at the time, saying she'd been sacrificed to protect the more senior faculty member.

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