University of Texas lacks authority to revoke PhDs, judge rules

The University of Texas (UT) at Austin does not have the authority to revoke degrees, a Texas judge ruled yesterday in a case involving a chemist whom the university alleges committed misconduct.

UT revoked Suvi Orr’s PhD in 2014, two years after the retraction of a paper that made up part of her thesis because, according to the retraction notice, some of the study was not reproducible. The university told Orr  — who earned her PhD in 2008 and is now a researcher at Pfizer — 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.

Orr sued UT, which reversed its decision but then tried to again revoke her degree, at which point she sued again, this time also requesting the university cover her legal expenses. Orr alleges in the suit that she was being used as a “sacrificial lamb” to protect her former advisor, who she said made the errors in the paper.

Orr won an injunction in 2017 that prevented UT from deciding whether to revoke her degree again until a judge had ruled on the central case. Yesterday, in an order granting part of Orr’s request for summary judgement on the case, Judge Karin Crump, of the District Court of Travis County, Texas, wrote that UT “lack[s] express authority to revoke S.O.’s degree” and also “lack[s] implied authority” to do so.

Orr’s attorneys, David Sergi and Anita Kawaja, tell Retraction Watch:

This decision recognizes that the law in Texas has been unchanged since 1969. In essence, if the University of Texas wants to take a degree away from a former student they must file suit in District Court and not rely on a ad hoc process with little or no real due process.

The court ruled that that the Texas law  protects those that earned their degree by ensuring that they can only take away a degree by complying with the rigid due process found in a lawsuit.

Our client has always defended her research, and is frustrated that UT Austin chose support an academic who was, in our opinion trying to shift the blame for his missteps to our client.

Throughout this entire process UT Austin has shown no respect for our client and it is time to wake up to the fact that they have to hold faculty accountable for their own failures.

UT Austin has tried to hide behind closed doors, and a process veiled in secrecy and without due process. UT Austin has choses to harm her reputation.

Today the court has the taken the first steps to restore her reputation and her standing in  the scientific community.

Sergi and Kawaja said they suspect that the case will be appealed. UT did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Update, 1345 UTC, 2/12/19: UT spokesperson Gary Susswein tells Retraction Watch:

The university respectfully disagrees with the ruling and is reviewing it to determine our options.

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2 thoughts on “University of Texas lacks authority to revoke PhDs, judge rules”

  1. >>> “…whom she said made the errors in the paper.”
    This should read ” … who she said made the errors in the paper.” Apologies for the pedantry.

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