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Perhaps it is a sign of paranoia that I even ask, but is there a chance that the private college I got my BA from back in the 1980s would revoke my degree if I were to publicly complain about its political stances?

Unfortunately, I have never donated significantly to the college, so my views don't hold any real force.

I doubt they would do so. And if they did, I find it unlikely that it would set off a chain reaction. But theoretically, my teaching degree depends in part on my MA, which in turn depends in part on my BA. Theoretically, if my BA got revoked, I could lose my teaching accreditation and hence my job. But can they?


Thank you to everyone for these thoughtful and detailed responses. My fears have been broadly dispelled, although some anxienty remains. I probably have more to fear in my current setting directly, than through a chain reaction involving my degree.

I have posted some thoughts in the comments under the first response and will remain engaged in the discussions above.

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    "my teaching degree depends in part on my MA, which in turn depends in part on my BA. Theoretically, if my BA got revoked, I could lose my teaching accreditation and hence my job." That's not how pre-requisites work. – Thomas Aug 3 at 8:43
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    Moderator’s notice: For the sake of this question, assume that the complaints in question are reasonable, i.e., the college is actually overdoing it and the complaints are uttered in a civil manner. (Otherwise, as already noted, a degree revocation may be the least of the asker’s worries.) Refrain from making general accusations against any political movement or anti-movement as well as from using any derogatives to characterise it. – Wrzlprmft Aug 3 at 12:23
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    I'd be more worried about your job, if your comments end up making for an unfriendly environment for your students who aren't part of the majority in your country. – Azor Ahai -- he him Aug 3 at 15:03
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    @Close-voters, have a look at the answers so far: There's a consensus and the answers are supported by experience rather than guesswork or preferences. I don't see why the question should be closed as opinion-based. – henning -- reinstate Monica Aug 3 at 17:35
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    I'm stating the obvious here, but the answer depends heavily on the country. In countries run by a totalitarian government, or where the rule of law is not functional, or both, anything is possible. Both of the above are depressingly common. So I recommend stating your country for useful answers. Answers that apply to Western Europe may not be so relevant to other places, for example. – Faheem Mitha Aug 4 at 15:45
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I've been working in Academia for the past ten years. The only cases of degree revocation that I am aware of were due to severe cases of academic misconduct such as plagiarism, fraud, or large-scale cheating. The rationale is that gross academic misconduct invalidates the achievement the degree should certify.

Revocations on grounds of expression of (political) disagreement with the issuing institution are unheard of in rule-of-law democracies. I've never heard of such a case, although it would certainly have become very well-known.

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    I guess this answer should be tempered by pointing out that how you express your opinions is probably a factor at play here. Writing a polite letter to the president is fine; torching the library isn't. – avid Aug 3 at 9:41
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    @avid yes, but even then OP would be prosecuted for arson, with his degree intact. – henning -- reinstate Monica Aug 3 at 10:43
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    My understanding is that the severe academic misconduct needs to happen in acquiring the degree (and this is why e.g. Andrew Wakefield still has his degree). – HAEM Aug 3 at 12:02
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    @HAEM: At least in Germany, a doctoral degree can be revoked for research misconduct that is unrelated to that degree, at in at least one case it has. On the other hand, regarding the library example, I can find nothing about the Unabomber’s degrees being revoked. – Wrzlprmft Aug 3 at 12:09
  • @Wrzlprmft In 2012, the Harvard alumni association printed a bizarre entry, apparently sent by Kaczynski himself: boston.com/uncategorized/noprimarytagmatch/2012/05/23/… – Robert Furber Aug 6 at 0:14
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I sit on our university's Senate which is the body that would have to deliberate a degree revocation. Even a straight-forward case of plagiarism in a degree requires a long, drawn-out and surprisingly contentious decision, and it might happen once or twice a decade. This is the last step of a very, very long and drawn-out process.

So no, I wouldn't worry, outside of demonstrable research misconduct that puts the entire integrity of the degree in jeopardy.

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  • @Nat I'd imagine the relevance of plagiarism is that no-one (at least in an academic context) would argue that it is either acceptable or irrelevant, and the debate is only about what level of sanction to apply. In OP's case that would not be so. – Especially Lime Aug 4 at 8:08
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    Yes good question @Nat: plagiarism is the most significant academic crime, and puts the integrity of the degree itself into question. If they were to engage in other behavior - even serious crimes - we would not revoke a normal degree as the degree itself was completed under proper circumstances. Honourary degrees are completely different, of course (we would revoke under other circumstances). – canadian_humanist Aug 4 at 14:19
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    @canadian_historian Plagiarism is a serious offense but not "the most significant academic crime". There are worse offenses, making up data comes to mind (because that actually threatens the integrity of science). – Roland Aug 5 at 13:23
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    @Roland: In some sense plagiarism, misattribution, and making up data out of thin air are all variations on a single offense -- misrepresenting the source of data. – Ben Voigt Aug 5 at 20:53
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    A paper can have perfectly valid and valuable results, no matter how much plagiarism or misattribution there is. Making up data invalidates the paper, and possibly other papers whose authors innocently relied on that paper. – gnasher729 Aug 5 at 21:45
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I think the chances of having your degree revoked for criticizing the political choices of a university are more or less zero. Degrees are awarded for academic reasons, not moral ones.

The exception to this is honorary degrees. Honorary degrees are given to some for expressly moral judgement even though the recipient hasn't completed any classes or met the required academic standards. They are awarded because they represent to sort of character that they would like the world to associate with the university. If they prove themselves not that have that character, or stop having that character, then it makes sense to remove the honorary degree.

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    w.r.t. honorary degrees, Robert Mugabe looks like an obvious example where Edinburgh University in the UK, and University of Massachusetts and Michigan State University in the US look to have revoked degrees they'd given him. – DavidW Aug 3 at 16:32
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    Bill Cosby is another example. A number of his honorary degrees were withdrawn when he was convicted of sexual misconduct. – Barmar Aug 4 at 0:25
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In the (2005) paper The Right of Educational Institutions to Withhold or Revoke Academic Degrees from the Stetson University College of Law Twenty-sixth Annual National Conference on Law and Higher Education, the authors give an in-depth survey of reasons universities have successfully revoked degreees. Not one of these involves the behaviour of a candidate after they have completely left the institution—whether this behaviour be academic, political or indeed criminal.

There are cases, for example, of degrees being withheld after a murder on campus before the degree was conferred, even though the strictly academic requirements of the course had been met, but this was on the basis of the student not abiding by the student code of conduct whilst at the university.

Similarly, other cases, involving financial fraud or involvement in the death of another student, all relate to the period when the candidate was actually attending the institution.

There may be countries where it's possible for universities to revoke degrees on the basis of a student's non-academic conduct after leaving an institution, but it does not appear to have happened in any American or European universities. Such cases would become very well-known, especially if, as @Henning notes, they merely involved voicing political opinions.

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    A comment under the top answer gives an example of a degree being revoked because of research misconduct. Do you mean something different by "academic"? – user111388 Aug 4 at 16:00
  • Also, A. rex in the comments under the questions seems to give other examples of revoked degrees. – user111388 Aug 4 at 16:01
  • Also, it is not clear to me the OP is in Europe or America. – user111388 Aug 4 at 16:03
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    @user111388 The paper cited only covers the US, whereas it was a German university that recinded Schön's doctorate. As my comment to A.Rex explains, although his are interesting cases, they all refer to the withholding of degrees (not their revocation), or to expulsions from universities, and in all of those cases this was related to conduct whilst at the institution or during the enrollment process (you can read about Maurice Goodreau, Robert Harwood, Donald Heathfield and Gregory Johnson in the linked to paper). I don't know where the OP is from, you might be right there. – Araucaria - Not here any more. Aug 4 at 17:11
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Princeton University only started admitting women in 1969. Even in the mid- to late-1980's the alumni magazine (Princeton Alumni Weekly printed letters bemoaning this fact from alumni of various older classes (issues that old are not available on-line). However, as an alum, and son of an alum, I read through the magazine from the mid-70's until today. Even by the standards of that time the letters were sexist and demeaning. No degrees were revoked.

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    Could you provide references? Also, why is it clear that this example generalizes to the college the OP asks about? Couldn't it be that it was Princeton's choice not to reprimand sexist letters? – user111388 Aug 3 at 14:18
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    Where I thought you were headed with this answer is that, since Princeton has a questionable "unwoke" moral history, they are in no position to judge the OP (lest they be judged). – Phil Freedenberg Aug 3 at 19:39
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    @PhilFreedenberg - and what 200+ year old institutions can claim a pure ‘moral history’? Princeton is no better or worse than basically all the others. – Jon Custer Aug 3 at 22:42
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    I remember those letters well! What I liked best, however, were two alumni who used the Class Notes section to renounce their previous condemnation of co-education. One said it hadn't occurred to him that co-education meant his granddaughter could go to Princeton even though his grandson didn't get admitted. The other was impressed that at that time (late 1970s) the Women's Athletic teams were very successful while other than basketball, the Mens' were in an extended dry spell. – Andrew Lazarus Aug 5 at 1:20
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You need to read up on the legislation regarding your activity and location. I'm unaware of revoked undergraduate degrees affecting graduate degrees on a chain reaction. While your BA might have been a requirement at the time in order to receive your MA, it's been already fulfilled and it would require a separate procedure to revoke it, too.

Most jurisdictions would protect your job based on either the acquired rights principle (such changes cannot have retroactive effects), the reasonability principle (disproportional punishment to the misdeed), or the notorious knowledge principle (your aptitude has been publicly recognized). In my jurisdiction, even undergrad students who committed fraud in the acceptance process would not have their studies fully revoked, although the institution was allowed to expel them.

Therefore, I would be highly skeptical about having your BA revoked: it would have little effect (alone) on your career, it's likely to be overturned in most courts, and taking such extreme measures without strong evidence of gross misconduct would reflect quite poorly on the institution. Honestly, I cannot see why they would jeopardize their reputation in such manner, instead of just taking you to court, where they could build a case and cause more damage to your career.

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Historically, there have indeed been cases in which degrees have been revoked for purely political reasons, including cases where the degree holder espoused, or was perceived to have espoused, political views at odds with those of the university:

  • In 1930, the Tunisian scholar Tahar Haddad published Our Women in the Shari'a and Society, a controversial book advocating expanded rights for women. Haddad was declared an apostate and his alma mater, the University of Ez-Zitouna, stripped him of his degree. [1]

  • In Nazi Germany, the government passed legislation to revoke the doctoral degrees of Jews and political dissidents, and certain university senates independently issued revocations of their own accord. These revocations were not universally considered to have been voided after the regime's downfall in 1945, leading some universities—among them Vienna's Technische Universität Wien and the University of Wroclaw, standing in for the dissolved Schlesische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität zu Breslau—to formally reinstate them years later. [2–4]

  • Beginning in the 1970s, Soviet universities would often revoke the degrees of academics (often but not always Jews) who had emigrated, or even merely attempted to emigrate, for political reasons. [5, 6]

I'm not aware of any similar politically motivated revocations happening in modern times in Western countries, though it is certainly conceivable that this practice continues or could occur in the future in authoritarian or politically unstable regimes. If you got your degree in such a country, and if your words or actions reflect unfavourably on that country or on your university, then it is possible that your degree may be stripped as punishment. (Without knowing what university you attended, what the political situation is there, and exactly what you said or did that they may find objectionable, it's not really possibly to quantify the risk.) However, if you got your degree from an accredited institution in a country that broadly protects freedom of political speech, then you probably don't have anything to worry about.


References:

  1. Ziba Mir-Hosseini. Justice, Equality and Muslim Family Laws: New Ideas, New Prospects. In: Ziba Mir-Hosseini, Kari Vogt, Lena Larsen, and Christian Moe, eds. Gender and Equality in Muslim Family Law: Justice and Ethics in the Islamic Legal Tradition. London: I.B. Taurus, 2013, pp. 13–14. ISBN 9781784537401. DOI: 10.5040/9780755609277.ch-001
  2. JTA. Poland University Restores 262 PhD's Stripped by Nazis: Wroclaw Shamefully Zealous in Targeting Jewish Academics. The Jewish Daily Forward, 8 January 2015.
  3. Monika Scislowska. 7 decades on, scholars to annul Nazi revoking of doctorates: Polish, German academics to denounce the stripping of Jews’ university qualifications during WWII. The Times of Israel, 8 January 2015.
  4. Juliane Mikoletzky. Continuities and Discontinuities: Personnel Policies from 1945 to 1955. In: Juliane Mikoletzky and Paulus Ebner, The Technische Hochschule in Vienna 1914–1955: Part 2: National Socialism – War – Reconstruction (1938–1955). Vienna: Böhlau Verlag, 2016, pp. 177–192. ISBN 978-3-205-20132-8.
  5. David Baltimore, Paul J. Flory, Arthur Kornberg, Polykarp Kusch, Marshall W. Nirenberg, Arno A. Penzias, Mark Kac, and Jack Cohen. Degrees Revoked in Soviet Union. Science 216(4544):360, 23 April 1982. DOI: 10.1126/science.216.4544.360
  6. Dorothy Hirsch. Scientists in the Soviet Union. Nature 292:578, 13 August 1981. DOI: 10.1038/292578a0
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