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I was awarded a degree from a reputable college or university. For what reasons could my degree be revoked after the fact? Should I be worried?

Note to readers: This is a special community wiki 'canonical' question that aggregates advice on a frequently-asked question. See this meta discussion. Please feel free to edit this question to improve it.

Each answer here relates to a different criterion which may (or may not) lead to degree revocation. If you have a new possible criterion, please add an answer. If you have more information about an existing criterion, please edit the existing answer.

  • A historical note: The Nazis revoked degrees from many Jews, which were reinstated some decades later: news.uga.edu/… and some Nazis later had their degrees revoked: jta.org/1961/06/06/archive/… (for committing horrible crimes) ... obviously not relevant here as an answer. – Azor Ahai -- he him Aug 9 at 15:23
  • I removed the comments discussing the wiki's structure of this canonical Q&A. The best place to discuss the structure is this meta question. Please bring further criticism and suggestions there. – Massimo Ortolano Sep 1 at 6:37
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Please feel free to edit this answer to improve it.

Short answer: will my degree be revoked?

Almost certainly not. Degree revocation is extremely rare, and almost always involves some major, willful misconduct such as plagiarizing long sections or falsifying data. Almost everyone who has raised concerns on this site over the years had nothing to worry about. The different answers below discuss different criteria that could lead to degree revocation, but these are generally edge cases. The typical person who earned their degree in good faith has nothing to worry about.

But this site cannot give you a definitive answer. Different schools have different staff and different policies, so it is impossible to predict how a particular institution will respond to a particular situation. Nor can we decide whether you committed misconduct (and even if we did, our decision would not count for anything). We recommend checking your school's policy on degree revocation (often available online). If you are concerned about degree revocation, you could discuss the issue with a legal advisor or the school in question, though you may be better off "letting sleeping dogs lie."

Finally, note that degree revocation may be discussed or threatened rather more frequently than it actually occurs. Individuals and/or organisations may respond to some incident or action by 'calling on the university to revoke the degree', and this may gain traction on social (or indeed traditional) media. However, this does not mean it is actually likely to happen.

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    "you should check your particular institution's policies" I'd guess many universities have no such policy and have never revoked a degree. – Anonymous Physicist Aug 9 at 3:03
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Criterion: Research or Academic Misconduct (e.g., Plagiarism)

Degree revocation is very rare. When it does happen, academic misconduct is usually the cause, and it usually must be severe and intentional. As henning writes:

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.

Similarly, canadian humanist reports:

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.

A now-departed user provides some examples of degrees which have been revoked for major academic misconuduct, notably plagiarism:

There have been spectacular examples of falling from grace.

  • Pal Schmitt resigned as President of Hungary after his doctorate was stripped by Semmelweis University on findings of plagiarism.
  • Former German Defence Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg graduated...from the University of Bayreuth in 2006...A finding of plagiarism led to his degree being revoked.

The same answer also reiterates that the criteria for revocation due to academic misconduct are likely formally defined by your university:

In my university...the policy allows for a revocation in the event that the degree was awarded in error or through fraud. The policy proceeds to list the criteria and processes to be followed. Fraud is defined broadly and includes conventional definitions of academic misconduct, but other acts as well. Finally, there is a specific clause [stating that] one cannot [defend oneself] on the basis that there was no intention to commit fraud.

Practices on degree revocation also vary regionally. Sergio J Castro reports that degree revocation in the Spanish-speaking world almost never happens, even when clearly merited.

Could academic misconduct after completing the degree lead to revocation? User Stephan Kolassa addresses this:

Yes. Although you will need to do something blatantly unethical.

For instance, my alma mater (the University of Konstanz, in Germany) revoked an alumnus' Ph.D. after this alumnus blatantly falsified data, although the Ph.D. thesis as such was not tainted.

But this varies regionally. Araucaria describes a 2005 paper from a US institution, which did not find a single degree that was revoked for bad acts subsequent to graduation.

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 degrees. 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. [Note, Stetson is in the US].

Further, revocation due to academic misconduct is rare due to practical reasons. As reported here, it is often difficult to prove that academic misconduct took place happened years after the fact. And outside of certain high-profile individuals, few theses are scrutinized after being approved.

Prior to this wiki's creation, Academia.SE received dozens of questions from users concerned that they could be accused of academic misconduct, leading to their degree being revoked. To my knowledge, the answer was never once "yes, you committed academic misconduct and your degree is likely to be revoked." For example, concerns like data changing underneath you, the thesis not containing sufficient novelty, self-reporting possible problems with the thesis, or having a missing degree requirement were all dismissed.

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Not a Criterion: Political Activities

As discussed here, revoking a degree based on political activities (e.g., criticizing the university that granted the degree) would gather wide attention, but we are not aware of any such cases having happened. Although anything could happen in the future, given the lack of observed cases it does not seem political activity is considered grounds for revoking (non-honorary) degrees.

Indeed, taking any sort of action based on political expression is anathema to Western ideas of tertiary education.

  • I think it would be useful to have stronger wording here than "would not normally", given that this is never known to have happened. – David Z Aug 8 at 21:42
  • My thinking was that most questions have asked about mainstream political debate (e.g., the linked question is about "anti-wokeness"), but some very extreme political opinions (e.g., a high-profile neo-nazi) could have different considerations. Though I admit that I'm not aware of any neo-nazis having their degree revoked, so perhaps your point still stands. – cag51 Aug 8 at 23:02
  • That's a good point. My thinking is just that, when someone says something is "remotely possible" or "would never happen under normal circumstances" or such, some people still latch on to that perceived tiny chance that it might actually happen. (The good old "So you're saying there's a chance?") That's why I tend to gravitate toward using stronger wording, e.g. "completely unheard of" or "practically impossible", and that would be how I'd go here unless/until we actually do have an example of a degree being revoked for political activity. – David Z Aug 8 at 23:25
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    I gave a stab at an edit along @DavidZ 's suggestions. I also wonder if there might be some exceptions in countries with authoritarian or theological leanings, though I suspect those countries would tend to use imprisonment or other means rather than revoking degrees. – Bryan Krause Aug 8 at 23:43
  • As the only answer on the page where the answer is "no" (at least currently), it should be distinguished so the reader doesn't scroll through and think the answer is "yes." However, i'm not quite sure how to do that, so I leave it for someone feeling more inspired. – Azor Ahai -- he him Aug 9 at 15:17
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Criterion: Personal Misconduct

Degree revocation is very rare, and is usually a result of academic misconduct that renders the degree itself invalid. However, degrees are occasionally revoked for serious personal misconduct, particularly in Europe.

We should first distinguish between honorary degrees and academic degrees. As Ian Sudbery explains:

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.

For academic degrees, the situation is quite different regionally. In Europe, degrees can be (and are) revoked for personal misconduct, though it is rare. For example Earthlin reports that in Germany:

a PhD may be revoked in case of:

  • a wilful act resulting in a prison sentence of one year or more, or
  • a deliberate/wilful offence abusing their scientific qualification.

These are quite "mild" conditions, presumably in place to discourage degree holders to engage in behaviour on the wrong side of the law.

Similarly, doog reports that Cambridge is/was in the process of revoking a pedophile's degree, though in this case, the bad acts happened while attending the university and were discovered later.

On the other hand, revocation for personal misconduct in the US is even less likely, as user6726 reports:

In the US, you have a property right to the degree that you earn and pay for (regardless of the ultimate source of funding -- the student has the responsibility to pay), and as long as you don't violate the conditions for obtaining the degree (various forms of dishonesty in admissions and satisfaction of the degree), improper actions after the fact don't license depriving a person of what they have earned.

(**) Existing answers are limited to Europe and the US; please feel free to edit this page with your expert knowledge about other parts of the world.

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    a PhD may be revoked in case of a wilful act resulting in a prison sentence of one year or more What relevance does a prison sentence have on knowledge bought to the world?! – user2768 Aug 8 at 8:26
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    Agree. I don't have much more to contribute on this topic, but you or others should feel free to improve this answer. – cag51 Aug 8 at 19:09
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    @user2768 Well, we don't know if this refers to academic degrees or just honorary ones, and whether the personal misconduct had to happen during the course of the degree (in which case, as in most other countries the degree can be revoked on the gorunds of breaking the student code of conduct). (but I agree with your sentiment) – Araucaria - Not here any more. Aug 8 at 19:40
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    @user2768 none, but degrees in Europe, especially in Germany are historically and a bit still today also seen as a status symbol and sign of honour that is bestowed by the university on the individual. So it's linked to holding the person in high regard. A clearly dishonourable act would be in conflict with that. From another viewpoint by bestowing the degree the university enables the person to hold certain positions and the underlying assumption is that a criminal should not be allowed to hold these. – Frank Hopkins Aug 9 at 17:14
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    What Earthling says about revocation of degrees due to "a wilful act resulting in a prison sentence of one year of more" seems to apply obly to some universities in Nordrhein-Westfalen, and not to Germany as a whole. In most of Germany, the "wilful act" has to be related to science, according to Wikipedia – wimi Aug 10 at 21:03
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Criterion: Admissions Fraud

If a student was admitted to a university through fraudulent means and graduated, the university may revoke the degree once it knows that the student should not have attended the institution in the first place. For example, UPenn initiated a policy that states the university may revoke degrees for providing false information on their applications.

  • UPenn's policy was in response to the 2019 college admissions scandal. After the 2019 college admissions scandal, several colleges indicated (via public statement or via policy updates) that admissions fraud may result in degree revocation. This was probably already a possibility, but now it's far more publicized. – Brian Aug 13 at 15:06

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