Nearly six years after Suvi Orr received a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Texas, the university told her it has decided to do something that institutions of higher learning almost never do: revoke the degree.
Orr, in turn, has sued UT in an effort to hold onto the doctorate that launched her career in the pharmaceutical industry.
Her lawsuit in state district court in Travis County contends that revocation is unwarranted and that the university violated her rights by not letting her defend herself before the dissertation committee that condemned her research long after she graduated. In addition, she says, the committee relied heavily on her former professor, who, she claims, was motivated to “cast the blame elsewhere.”
UT is barred by federal privacy law from discussing an individual student’s academic performance or issues related to it, said spokesman Gary Susswein. However, a letter from the university included in Orr’s court filings accused her of scientific misconduct, including falsification of data.
In court papers filed on behalf of the university, the state attorney general’s office blamed Orr’s “own acts and/or omissions” and also said UT is protected by sovereign immunity, a legal doctrine that shields governmental units, including state universities, from lawsuits. The case is pending.
Nationwide, the number of degrees revoked in any given year is almost certainly less than 100, said Ada Meloy, general counsel for the American Council on Education. The reasons for revocation can include falsifying research, plagiarizing a dissertation and lying on an application for admission, she said.
Austin-based cyclist Lance Armstrong saw his doctor of humane letters rescinded by Tufts University in Massachusetts in 2012 after he admitted to doping. In 2010, Harvard University revoked a graduate degree in public administration it gave to a man who turned out to be a Russian spy living under a stolen Canadian identity.
In recent weeks, Mathew Martoma, a former trader with hedge fund group SAC Capital Advisors, lost his degree from Stanford University. Martoma, convicted of insider trading in February, had been expelled from Harvard Law School in 1999 for falsifying his transcript grades, according to court documents. He went on to earn a master’s in business administration from Stanford.
Public and private colleges in Texas say revocation occurs rarely, if ever.
UT’s registrar reports one degree revocation in the past seven years, Susswein said. That doesn’t count Orr’s degree, which had not been revoked as of Friday. The university awards about 8,000 degrees annually.
Texas A&M University officials said they could find no record of a degree being revoked but couldn’t rule out the possibility entirely. Texas State University said a degree awarded in 1973 was withdrawn in 2009.
Rice University, a private school in Houston, revoked one degree, a Ph.D., in the past 10 years because the thesis was plagiarized, said university spokesman B.J. Almond.
Southwestern University in Georgetown revoked one degree in 20-some years, for “scholastic dishonesty” involving a transfer course, officials said. The degree was reinstated after the student met the course requirement.
In Orr’s case, UT administrators moved to revoke her degree after finding that “scientific misconduct occurred in the production of your dissertation,” according to a letter to Orr from Judith Langlois, senior vice provost and dean of graduate studies.
The dissertation committee concluded that work related to “falsified and misreported data cannot be included in a dissertation and that the remaining work described in the dissertation is insufficient to support the award” of a Ph.D.,” Langlois wrote. Orr was invited to submit a new thesis summarizing other work to earn a master’s degree.
Orr’s lawsuit says questions about her research arose following her graduation. Her former professor, Stephen Martin, and a post-doctoral researcher expressed interest in publishing work Orr had done as a graduate student concerning synthesis of chemicals. Orr agreed on the condition that the post-doctoral researcher repeat various experiments to gain new results, according to her suit.
The experiments were not repeated, but the findings were published anyway, the suit says. The article, in the journal Organic Letters, was subsequently retracted by its authors, including Orr and Martin, because a chemical synthesis step “is not reproducible,” according to a notation on the journal’s website.
Orr says the dissertation committee “did not undertake any inquiry into the role or responsibility of the post-doc or Prof. Martin.”
Martin told the Statesman that he hasn’t seen the lawsuit and therefore would not comment.