Law and Policy in Higher Education 

Withholding or revoking degrees

Questions and answers on degree revocation

KEY QUOTATIONS:

(from the court in Waliga v. Board of Trustees of Kent State University, 1986):

"Academic degrees are a university's certification to the world at large of the recipient's educational achievement and fulfillment of the institution's standards. To hold that a university may never withdraw a degree, effectively requires the university to continue making a false certification to the public at large of the accomplishment of the persons who in fact lack the very qualifications that are certified."

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(from the court in North v. West Virginia Board of Regents, 1985):

"In recent years, many of the respected professions, including the professions of law and medicine, have come under unrelenting attack from the press because of the untoward conduct of a few of those professions' practitioners. The initial responsibility for determining the competence and suitability of persons to engage in professional careers lies with the professional schools themselves. As long as the conduct of educators is not high-handed, arbitrary or capricious, educators should be left alone to do their job without interference from those of us in the judiciary who have neither the expertise nor the insight to evaluate their decisions."


Questions and answers on degree revocation

By Gary Pavela

An article in the March 5, 2014 Wall Street Journal reported on a decision by the Stanford University Graduate School of Business to revoke the degree of Mathew Martoma, a 2003 Business School graduate convicted last month of insider trading. The Journal reported that:

The former trader may face decades in prison, so it’s unlikely his business degree is top of mind. But Stanford’s move is noteworthy because it’s believed to be the first time the business school has revoked a graduate’s degree . . .

Shortly before applying to Stanford, Mr. Martoma was expelled from Harvard Law School for falsifying his transcript grades, according to documents unsealed in advance of his trial . . .

Stanford sent Mr. Martoma a letter last month seeking explanation about statements on his application and allowed him two weeks to respond, according to people familiar with the correspondence. Mr. Martoma’s lawyers requested a two-week extension, which was granted, according to those people. That extension ran out last Friday.

All applicants must sign a statement acknowledging that Stanford can withdraw an offer of admission if the candidate has misrepresented his or her credentials or engages in behavior 'that indicates a serious lack of judgment or integrity' before arriving on campus, among other criteria.

With their signatures, applicants are also confirming that all of the information in their applicants are their own work and, 'to the best of your knowledge, complete and accurate' [emphasis added].

Was Stanford's action lawful? Based on the reported facts, the answer is almost certainly yes.

What follows is an updated "question and answer" document on withholding or revoking academic degrees. Most conclusions and some language are drawn from our 1999 Chronicle of Higher Education essay on this topic (Pavela, "For the Same Reasons That Students Can be Expelled, Degrees Ought to be Revocable").

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Questions addressed:

[1] Is it legally possible to revoke a degree after it's awarded?

[2] Have any courts addressed the issue of degree revocation?

[3] Has degree revocation been upheld for admissions fraud?

[4] Has degree revocation for plagiarism been upheld?

[5] May colleges withhold or revoke a degree for misconduct before graduation?

[6] Years ago MIT revoked a degree for involvement in a hazing incident. Is that legal?

[7] If there was no fraud or error, what would justify withholding or revoking a degree?

[8] What procedures should be followed before a degree is withheld or revoked?

[9] Who should decide to withhold or revoke a degree?


Generally, yes. Courts grant both public and private colleges considerable autonomy in the management of core academic functions, like awarding degrees. Most courts are likely to agree with the view that the power to revoke a degree (for good cause--and with due process) is implicit in the power to grant a degree.

Also, the basic relationship between a student and a college is contractual. Doubts about the authority to revoke a degree would be minimized if institutional policies explicitly reserved the right to do so, outlining appropriate reasons and procedures.

[2] Have any courts addressed the issue of degree revocation?

Yes. One of the most cited decisions is Waliga v. Board of Trustees of Kent State University 22 Ohio St. 3d 55 (1986). In that case, Kent State sought to revoke degrees of two former students, after discovering discrepancies in the students' transcripts--including grades for courses they had never taken. The students challenged Kent State's action, and eventually lost in the Ohio Supreme Court. The court wrote:

We consider it self-evident that a college or university acting through its board of trustees does have the inherent authority to revoke an improperly awarded degree where (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. Academic degrees are a university's certification to the world at large of the recipient's educational achievement and fulfillment of the institution's standards. To hold that a university may never withdraw a degree, effectively requires the university to continue making a false certification to the public at large of the accomplishment of the persons who in fact lack the very qualifications that are certified. Such a holding would undermine public confidence in the integrity of degrees, call academic standards into question, and harm those who rely on the certification which the degree represents.

Any action which is necessary for the proper maintenance and successful operation of a state university is authorized, unless it is prohibited by statute . . . In the event that a degree is procured through fraud, or a degree is awarded erroneously, it is certainly within the implied authority of the university to revoke it. A power of a state agency may be fairly implied from an express power where it is reasonably related to the duties of the agency . . . The power to confer degrees necessarily implies the power to revoke degrees erroneously granted.

More than two hundred fifty years ago, these same issues were addressed in The King v. University of Cambridge (Bentley's Case) (K.B.1723) . . . a degree-holder's mandamus action to compel restoration of a degree that the university had revoked. Chief Justice Pratt of the Court of King's Bench stated:

"This is a case of great consequence, both as to the property, the honour, and the learning, of this university, and concerns every graduate there, though at present it is the case only of one learned man, and the head of a college. The question is, Whether the University can suspend and degrade, and by what rules they may proceed in either or both of these cases?" (Emphasis added.) 8 Modern Rep. At 161.

He went on to say that the University of Cambridge could revoke a degree for "a reasonable cause * * * specially set forth, (id.)." but "that a man shall not be deprived of his property without being heard, (id. at 161-162)"; therefore, the degree-holder must be afforded the right to attend and participate in the proceedings before the vice-chancellor's court. The English common law provides precedential rules of decision in Ohio and other states. Modern courts have the also traditionally refused to interfere with fundamental university functions, such as the granting and withdrawing of academic degrees, except to require that good cause be shown and that a fair hearing procedure be made available . . .

We hold that the university board of trustees does have the authority to revoke previously granted academic degrees for proper cause after affording the degree-holder constitutionally adequate procedures.

[3] Has degree revocation been upheld for admissions fraud?

Yes. A leading decision is North v. West Virginia Board of Regents 332 S.E.2d 141 (1985). The court wrote:

There is no doubt that the petitioner became a medical student because of his application, interview and supporting documents. His admission was assured only because he gave information that cast him in a more favorable light than the true facts would have allowed. From the date of his admission and his becoming a student, North enjoyed the fruits of his deliberate misrepresentations. Stated succinctly, North's very status as a student was dependent entirely upon his submission of falsified documentation in support of his application. In this light, the legal arguments advanced by the petitioner are not logic but sophistry.

Furthermore, independent of the University's rules and regulations, the actions of the hearing committee, the President, and the Board of Regents were justified on the basis that the petitioner committed fraud in obtaining his admission to the medical school . . . [I]t is settled doctrine that fraud in the procurement of an agreement or the obtaining of some benefit vitiates any right to receive the fruits of the contract or the benefits . . .

Mr. North asserts that his expulsion is an excessive sanction for the transgression that he committed. Nonetheless . . . the courts of this state have traditionally given substantial deference to the discretion of officials of colleges and universities with respect to academic dismissal and such decisions " [citations omitted] . . . Indeed, there is a substantial justification for giving such discretion to school officials. Those officials are in the best position to understand and appreciate the implications of various disciplinary actions. Specifically, the President of West Virginia University and the Board of Regents have the best perspective to make disciplinary decisions based upon their impact on general admissions practices, the prospect of displacement of other students, the value of exemplary discipline, and the need to assure a high level of personal character in the graduates of professional schools.

In recent years, many of the respected professions, including the professions of law and medicine, have come under unrelenting attack from the press because of the untoward conduct of a few of those professions' practitioners. The initial responsibility for determining the competence and suitability of persons to engage in professional careers lies with the professional schools themselves. As long as the conduct of educators is not high-handed, arbitrary or capricious, educators should be left alone to do their job without interference from those of us in the judiciary who have neither the expertise nor the insight to evaluate their decisions.

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"The practice of medicine is not a simple matter of routine application of scientific principles relating to physiology, pharmacology, pathology or even surgery. Physicians must not only be technically competent, but they must also possess a surpassing degree of ethical commitment . . ."

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Mr. North asserts that he has shown himself to be a competent student and a person who will be a competent practitioner of medicine. But he has also shown a substantial capacity for fraud and deceit by a carefully contrived plan to cheat his way into medical school in the first instance. The practice of medicine is not a simple matter of routine application of scientific principles relating to physiology, pharmacology, pathology or even surgery. Physicians must not only be technically competent, but they must also possess a surpassing degree of ethical commitment and a sense of human decency. On the record, any reasonable person would be justified in having reservations about whether Mr. North possesses sufficient character to allow him to practice medicine without subjecting the public to potential unethical conduct. See W.Va.Code 30-3-14(c) [1980] which provides that a medical license may be denied to any person who commits fraud in its procurement.

[4] Has degree revocation for plagiarism been upheld?

Yes, see our key case review in TPR 14.11, below: Jaber v. Wayne State University (2012).

Degree revocation has also been upheld for forgery or fabrication. See Waliga, supra. See also Crook v. Baker 813 F.2d 88 (6th Cir. 1987) (University of Michigan Regents had the power to revoke a master's degree awarded to Wilson Crook, when it was determined that Crook's thesis contained fabricated data).

[5] May colleges withhold or revoke a degree for misconduct before graduation?

Yes. See Yoo v. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, item 6, below. See also Harwood v. Johns Hopkins University 747 A.2d 205 (2000).

The court in Harwood wrote:

Appellant enrolled at JHU in 1992. By the end of the fall 1995 semester, appellant had completed his course of study. JHU holds a graduation ceremony once annually, at the end of the spring semester. Appellant did not register for classes or pay tuition for the spring 1996 semester. During the spring semester, appellant was living with his grandmother in Rhode Island. Appellant, however, continued to maintain consistent contact with the JHU community. According to an affidavit filed by JHU's Dean of Students, Susan Boswell, appellant manned a student election table on campus in March of 1996. Additionally, Dean Boswell affirmed that she communicated with appellant on numerous occasions during the spring semester regarding complaints of harassment brought by a fellow JHU student, Rex Chao. During the course of these communications, Dean Boswell informed appellant that he would have to notify the campus security or her office when he intended to be on campus. Appellant notified Dean Boswell of his intention to attend a meeting of a student political organization on April 10, 1996.

Appellant attended the meeting. While there, appellant spoke and passed out flyers opposing the candidacy of Mr. Chao for the organization's president. After the meeting, while still on the JHU campus, appellant pursued Mr. Chao and confronted him. At this point, appellant shot and killed Mr. Chao. Appellant pled guilty to murdering Mr. Chao in addition to related handgun violations and is currently serving a thirty-five year prison sentence . . .

Having concluded that JHU had the power to withhold appellant's degree, we now address whether it acted arbitrarily and capriciously in doing so. Dean Boswell charged appellant with violating the following provisions of the Conduct Code:

The university expects all students to be law abiding citizens, to respect the rights of others, and to refrain from behavior which tends to impair the university's purpose or its reputation in the community. Students who have committed acts which are a danger to their own personal safety or which harm or have the potential of harming others, or who destroy, impair or wrongfully appropriate property, will be disciplined and may forfeit their right to be members of the 213*213 university community. For example, students are expected to refrain from:

B. Behavior which causes, or can reasonably be expected to cause, physical harm to a person.

C. Physical or verbal threats against or intimidation of any person which results in limiting her/his full access to all aspects of life at the university . . .

Appellee did not act arbitrarily and capriciously in expelling appellant. Dean Boswell timely notified appellant that he was suspended pending the resolution of his criminal case and adequately notified him of the provisions of the Conduct Code he was charged with violating. Appellant's murder of a fellow student and handgun violations were clear violations of the Conduct Code. Moreover, the procedures invoked by Dean Boswell were fair and comported with the requirements of the Handbook. Dean Boswell granted appellant an extension to respond to the charges so he could adequately prepare his defense and made herself available to both appellant and his parents. Additionally, there is no indication from the record that appellant ever took advantage of Dean Boswell's offer to discuss the charges by telephone.

[6] Years ago MIT revoked a degree for involvement in a hazing incident. Is that legal?

Yes (see also the Harwood decision, item 5, above). Here's an overview of the MIT incident from the Harvard Crimson:

Over a year after a pledge at MIT's Phi Gamma Delta fraternity died from alcohol poisoning, MIT has revoked the diploma of Charles H. Yoo, a 1998 MIT graduate who was the fraternity's pledgemaster at the time of the incident.

MIT officials, who said they could not comment on the case because of student privacy rules, revoked Yoo's diploma for five years after a proceeding by MIT's Committee on Discipline, according to Yoo's lawyer, Timothy M. Burke.

Burke said his client plans to sue MIT for the diploma, arguing MIT does not have the right to revoke a graduate's diploma and that his client was denied due process.

"There was no due process afforded in terms of having a meaningful hearing where a person has the opportunity to confront their accusers," he said. "There were no witnesses and no documentary evidence was introduced."

According to Burke, MIT revoked Yoo's diploma because University officials believed Yoo had purchased alcohol for the event and created an atmosphere in which students felt compelled to drink.

MIT prevailed in subsequent litigation. Yoo v. Massachusetts Institute of Technology 60 Mass. App. Ct. 1110 (2004). The Chronicle of Higher Education reported at the time that published MIT policies stated degrees may be withdrawn "in the event that a case is brought after graduation, for actions that occurred before graduation but were unknown at the time.” See Mary Ann Connell and Donna Gurley, "The Right of Educational Institutions to Withhold or Revoke Academic Degrees," 32 Journal of College and University Law 51, 62.

MIT rules (revised in July, 2013) currently state: "When the COD [Committee on Discipline] finds a graduate responsible for misconduct occurring prior to the individual graduating from MIT, the COD can permanently revoke the individual's degree."

On balance, colleges are likely to prevail if they can show that there is an express contract of enrollment with the respondent, authorizing revocation of a degree for good cause. The Ohio Supreme Court in Waliga (supra) seemed to give university administrators broad discretion, when it stated that "courts have also traditionally refused to interfere with fundamental university functions, such as the granting and withdrawing of academic degrees, except to require that good cause be shown and that a fair hearing procedure be made available."

[7] Even if MIT's action was legal, what would justify revoking a degree, if the degree wasn't received in error, or by fraud?

One way to answer that question is to ask what an employer (or admissions committee) can reasonably assume when a candidate presents a transcript showing receipt of a degree. No one contends a college degree represents a lifelong certification of good character. But the award of a degree does suggest the graduate has probably acquired some minimal level of "emotional intelligence"–sufficient, at least, not to have violated an obligation to abide by the institution's fundamental standards of conduct, while enrolled.

Revocation of a degree shouldn't be done lightly. Procedural protections must be substantial, and some informal "statute of limitations" might be applied when issues other than fraud or error are involved. Still, the larger society assumes and depends upon some basic level of integrity in our graduates–not just academic knowledge or skills. If public policy supports revocation of degrees awarded by fraud or error, it also supports revocation of degrees for serious, proven misconduct by students during the period of their enrollment, in violation of established institutional rules.

[8] What procedures should be followed before a degree is withheld or revoked?

It would be prudent to invoke the procedures used for serious disciplinary cases. Basically, there should be ample advance notice of charges–stated with enough specificity to allow the respondent to prepare a defense. The identity of the charging party should be provided, along with full access to the case file before and during the hearing. The respondent should have a right to be advised by counsel, and be allowed to present evidence to an impartial decisionmaker. The respondent should also be permitted to hear, confront, and call witnesses. Finally, the university should furnish a statement of reasons, supporting the final decision.

Procedural requirements for degree revocation were discussed in Crook v. Baker 813 F.2d 88 (6th Cir. 1987) (University of Michigan Regents had the power to revoke a master's degree awarded to Wilson Crook, when it was determined that Crook's thesis contained fraudulent data):

With respect to Crook's opportunity to be heard, it is without dispute that, in addition to . . . abundant notice. . . he had counsel from the beginning who dealt with the University, he had opportunity to and did file a response to the charges that was supplemented after the hearing, he had the opportunity to present witnesses and to have an expert with him at the hearing, he and his counsel both made opening statements at the hearing and his counsel was free to advise him, and he made statements and asked questions of the other witnesses. Moreover, Crook filed exceptions to the committee's findings and his attorney argued his case before the Regents. Though the district court in its opinion described the hearing presided over by Professor Rosberg as a "circus-like free-for-all," . . . the full transcript that is in the record makes clear that it simply was an informal rather than a trial-type hearing.

[9] Who should decide to withhold or revoke a degree?

Consultation with counsel–and careful review of institutional bylaws and state statutes–are important on this topic. In Hand v. Matchett , 957 F. 2d 791 (10th Cir. 1992), the court held that while New Mexico State University had the authority to revoke a degree, state law precluded the University Regents from delegating final authority for degree revocation to a "subordinate body."

The holding in Hand probably doesn't mean a governing body has to be the initial trier of fact. At a minimum, however, the governing body should consider written findings (and any objections to those findings)–perhaps permitting an oral statement by the finder of fact and the respondent. The Court in Crook described the following procedure:

information came to the attention of the University that Crook may have fabricated data in his master's thesis, and Crook was advised that a hearing would be held to determine whether such was true, and if so, that his degree might be revoked. An Ad Hoc Disciplinary Committee (Committee) of University professors was designated to hear the charges. Crook was furnished with documents allegedly supporting the charges, to which Crook replied. A hearing was held at which Crook was accompanied by his attorney, following which the Committee filed a report finding that Crook had indeed been guilty of fraud but made no recommendation as to revocation of the degree. This finding was approved and revocation was recommended by intermediate authorities in the University hierarchy. However, before the Board of Regents of the University acted, Crook filed this action in the district court against the Regents to enjoin the rescission of the degree. When the district court denied a preliminary injunction, the Regents, having approved the finding of fraud and having accepted the recommendation, rescinded the degree.

    Gary Pavela

    Written by

    Editor of TPR: Law and Policy in Higher Education

    Law and Policy in Higher Education

    Gary Pavela