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UT grad sues second time to retain Ph.D. amid allegation of misconduct

A woman who graduated from the University of Texas with a Ph.D. in chemistry has filed suit for the second time in an effort to keep the university from revoking her degree.

Suvi Orr, who received her doctorate in 2008, first sued UT in February 2014 after school administrators informed her that “scientific misconduct occurred in the production of your dissertation,” including “falsified and misreported data.”

Now a plaintiff identified as “S.O.” has sued UT in state District Court in Travis County. Although the lawsuit refers to the plaintiff by those initials for privacy protections under federal law, the circumstances of the case leave no doubt that she is Orr.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday, said UT officials revoked her degree but promptly reinstated it for “a do-over” during the first round of litigation. The suit contends that UT now plans to subject her to a “kangaroo court” whose members include undergraduate students lacking the expertise to interpret scientific data stemming from her research involving synthesis of chemicals.

UT spokesman Gary Susswein said in an email, “The university is prohibited by federal privacy law from discussing an individual student’s academic performance or issues related to it. The university will respond to these claims through the proper legal channels in the courts.”

Colleges and universities rarely strip graduates of their degrees, with the number of revocations nationwide likely less than 100 in any given year, according to higher education officials.

A court hearing has been scheduled for Feb. 17 on Orr’s request for a temporary injunction that would halt disciplinary proceedings pending a full trial on the dispute.

“We don’t think the university has the ability to revoke a degree the way they’re doing it, and we certainly would want a panel of distinguished and eminent organic chemists to review the charges against her,” David Sergi, Orr’s lawyer, told the American-Statesman on Friday. “She strenuously denies any academic misconduct.”

The lawsuit contends that UT lacks legal authority to revoke a degree and could do so only with a court’s permission. It also claims that the university is making Orr “the sacrificial lamb” to protect her former chemistry professor, Stephen Martin, “rather than have Prof. Martin admit his own errors and shortcomings as a graduate advisor, research chemist, and author.”

Martin didn’t respond to an email and a phone call requesting comment.

According to the lawsuit, the dispute involves results and reporting of work Orr did on compounds identified as P, Q and R.

“At worst, S.O’s alleged misinterpretations demonstrate the inexperience of a graduate student who was still learning her craft,” the lawsuit says. “The alleged misinterpretations are nothing but part of a scientific process.”

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