- The Texas Supreme Court late last month heard oral arguments in a case that would allow two of the state’s public colleges to revoke doctorate degrees from students who allegedly cheated on their dissertations more than a decade ago.
- The lawsuit centers on former students from the University of Texas at Austin and Texas State University. After they both earned their doctorate degrees, accusations arose that they falsified data in their dissertations. The universities have attempted to rescind their degrees.
- UT-Austin and Texas State are arguing they have authority to invalidate credentials if they discover academic malfeasance after students graduate. This allows the universities to protect their reputations and the value of their degrees, they have said.
The two students suing UT-Austin and Texas State faced strikingly similar circumstances.
Suvi Orr earned her doctoral degree from UT-Austin in organic chemistry in 2008. The university twice sought to claw back the degree following accusations Orr fudged the data in her dissertation. Orr maintains she misread data and did not intentionally mislead the university.
She sued to stop the university from revoking the degree, and thus far courts have sided with her, including in 2019 when a district judge found UT-Austin lacked that authority. Orr had said she wasn’t granted due process during a university investigation of the academic misconduct claims.
In the other case, a former student only known in court documents as “K.E.” sued over Texas State attempting to revoke a doctorate degree in biology she received in 2011. Shortly after earning the doctorate, an adviser alleged she manipulated data in her dissertation.
The cases were consolidated for state Supreme Court oral arguments, which occurred Sept. 20. A lawyer for the universities said then that though the state legislature never explicitly granted institutions power to take away degrees, institutions have broad rulemaking authority.
Academic observers were surprised by the idea that the Texas institutions lacked the ability to revoke degrees, Derek Newton, an edtech writer, explained in Forbes. Newton also runs a newsletter devoted to matters of academic research and integrity.
Newtown wrote that a decision in the universities’ favor could reverberate to other institutions. Students may be less inclined to cheat if they know that even far into the future they could risk losing their degrees.
“Escalating cheating penalties from a zero grade or, at worst, some kind of academic probation to job loss and having wasted years of time and thousands of dollars to not have a college degree — that’s a different calculation entirely,” Newton wrote. “Maybe some students will think twice.”
Degree revocation is rare. Notably, Ohio State University in 2017 yanked the doctorate degree of Jodi Whitaker, a communications scholar, after allegations of data irregularities in one of her papers came to light. Whitaker was then demoted from a tenure-track faculty position at University of Arizona to a lecturer.