Revoking Degrees: How and Why Schools Do It

Why schools bother revoking degrees...

Last week, a judge in Alberta, Canada ruled that the University of Calgary was within its legal right to rescind a degree it had awarded some 15 years earlier, rejecting allegations that the school had either treated the student unfairly or acted improperly.

The case centered around John Measor. Measor had been awarded a master of arts degree by the school in 2003. A decade later, he was teaching at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia when the school requested a copy of Measor’s master’s thesis.

Saint Mary’s then ran the paper through a plagiarism detection system, found that it had contained significant plagiarism and reported the findings to the University of Calgary. The University of Calgary then conducted its own investigation, agreed with Saint Mary’s findings and moved to rescind Measor’s degree.

Measor was given three opportunities at the university to defend himself and his work but the school ultimately decided rescinding the degree was the appropriate course of action. This prompted Measor to sue, claiming that the three tribunals had no jurisdiction over the matter and that the process was unfair.

The judge, however, disagreed. He said that, while the university process wasn’t perfect, it “provided him with a level of procedural fairness that was proportionate to the seriousness of the allegations against him.”

The judge also noted that Measor was warned about the plagiarism in 2002, prior to defending it, and that Measor had previously admitted to the plagiarism in his draft thesis. The judge also noted discrepancies between Measor’s accounting of events and those described before the tribunals.

All in all, the judgment represents a major win not just for the University of Calgary, but for the concept of rescinding degrees itself. 

Still, the case raises an interesting question: Why do schools go through the trouble of revoking degrees, especially considering the headache and challenge involved?

Why Schools Rescind Degrees

Rescinding a degree is the least desirable outcome for a school or university.  It indicates that, despite some kind of action that should have disqualified the student from receiving a degree, they did so and action must be taken years or even decades later to correct that.

In short, a degree should never have to be rescinded because a rescinded degree should never have been awarded in the first place. However, such moves are seen as necessary to protect academic integrity,

However, in this case, it’s academic integrity in the sense of protecting the integrity of the institution and its degrees, not simply honesty or integrity while conducting ones studies.

A degree from a university is supposed to indicate to those outside it that the person had completed some level of work and achieved some level of expertise. If students who do not meet that criteria hold degrees, then it devalues the degree for other students who completed what was demanded of them.

When a school rescinds a degree, they are doing it not to retroactively punish the student involved, but to preserve the integrity of their institution and the degrees it issues. In short, it’s done for the students who did earn their degrees.

However, it doesn’t mean that revoking degrees isn’t controversial, especially to those who risk having their degree revoked.

Controversies and Legalities in Revoking Degrees

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For students, earning an academic degree typically involves years of work and many thousands of dollars spent. In exchange for that, they expect a degree that will help them in their careers.

The thought that all of that work and money could be taken away years or decades later without compensation is a frightening one. However, it’s something that happens fairly regularly, especially if you look at the issue globally.

When students are faced with the revocation of their degree, their arguments typically include one or more of the following points:

  1. Jurisdiction: The school does not have the right to unilaterally revoke a degree that they’ve awarded. The school simply cannot rescind a degree and that such disputes should fall to another, more impartial, body (such as the courts). After all, the school is, in many ways, a party to the dispute it is deciding.
  2. Unfair Process: Though the tribunal process is different from school to school, students routinely argue that they are unfair and constitute an attempt to “railroad” the student.
  3. Breach of Contract: Finally, many students argue that, since they paid for and completed their degree, that they have a contract with the school for that degree and that it cannot be rescinded. 

However, all of these arguments have already been dealt with in courts, at least in the United States. In the 1986 case Waliga v. Board of Trustees of Kent State University The Ohio State Supreme Court ruled that schools had the absolute right to revoke degrees so long as they were doing so for “(1) good cause such as fraud, deceit, or error is shown, and (2) the degree holder is afforded a fair hearing at which he can present evidence and protect his interest.”

In short, as long as schools work to protect students constitutional rights by providing some due process and only rescind degrees for good cause, they are within their rights. Though this was a state law case and, obviously, other states may be different, it’s been cited heavily across the country.

One of the reasons for this is because not allowing schools to revoke degrees means that schools would be forced to certify that a student had completed all of the required work when they had not, essentially forcing the school to lie.

In short, as long as schools have to uphold a student’s credentials on an ongoing basis, they have the right to cease that by revoking the degree if they find evidence that they were doing so in error. 

Fortunately, such errors do appear to be exceedingly rare, even if they make the news a great deal.

How Common is the Problem

In general, it’s much more difficult to revoke a degree after it’s been awarded than it is to deny a degree before it is issued.

As such, universities typically only use this tool in cases of either:

  1. Administrative Error: Where a student had not completed the required coursework (though both the school and student thought they had) or was issued the wrong degree.
  2. Severe Fraud: The student committed some kind of fraud that was only discovered after the fact. Plagiarism or fabrication in a master’s thesis or doctoral dissertation are the most common but, as we have seen recently in Spain, it can include falsified transcripts and other improprieties.

Cases where such a fraud is discovered after the fact are, on the whole, rare.  In 2014 Stanford University Graduate School of Business revoked the degree of Mathew Martoma. Martoma had just been found guilty of insider trading and Stanford, after investigating Martoma, found that he had falsified his transcript grades when applying. As such, they rescinded his degree.

However, it is believed that it was the first time the school had revoked a degree in its history. So, while there are few, if any, statistics on degree revocation, it’s clear that it is a rarely used tool.

Still, it does happen and is often newsworthy when it does. Former German Education Minister Annette Schavan lost her Ph.D. over plagiarism allegations involving her dissertation some 33 years after it was defended. In the United States former Senator Joe Walsh lost his degree from the Army War College due to plagiarism allegations in his 7-year-old master’s thesis.

The reason for this is because, once someone graduates, others typically stop looking for plagiarism or other ethical missteps in their work. It’s only when they gives others a reason to look, such as an entrance into politics, that their work is closely re-examined.

Still, one never really knows when their work might fall under additional scrutiny. Cases such as Schavan’s and Walsh’s should remind students that, while plagiarism is forever, degrees can be temporary. 

Bottom Line

Generally speaking, degree revocation is a tool that’s used rarely and only in extreme circumstances. While the courts agree that schools can rescind degrees, they have to jump through significant hoops to do it.

Still, the fact is that it can and does happen and, if it does, there’s little recourse. Courts have broadly stood by the right of schools to rescind degrees and, though many students sue schools over academic integrity matters, few win.

In most cases, courts defer to the college on matters of academic integrity. As such, as long as courts hold schools can revoke degrees, schools will have that unilateral power and courts will only step in cases where it feels due process was violated.

In the end, the best thing to do is to not cheat, plagiarize or fabricate. You never know when those transgressions might come back to haunt you.

Note: Though the terms “revoke” and “rescind” have very different meanings in many areas of law, including contract law, they are used interchangeably in this article. 

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