I was looking at this question on The Workplace, where in the asker was considering doing homework for students for a fee. My initial thought was that it's possible he went to the same university*, and if discovered they would attempt to revoke his degree. I considered that this would be analogous to failing and expelling a current student who was found to be breaking the academic honesty policy. I know that some universities have recently retracted honorary degrees awarded, but of course, the course work was never done to deserve these degrees. So my question is...

Is it possible for a university to retract a degree that had previously been awarded for a full course completion if the individual does something that would clearly harm the university/violate the ethics of the university?

*this is completely speculative, and the question is theoretical at best

  • 8
    I don't have any hard data, but I believe this is extremely unlikely (notwithstanding @StephenKolassa's fascinating answer) as such a revocation would be highly illogical and in my opinion unjust. A (normal, not honorary) degree is a physical piece of paper that represents the university's knowledge that the recipient has satisfied certain requirements and achieved certain goals. If these goals were attained honestly then the university cannot logically revoke the degree any more than it can revoke the knowledge that the degree is a proxy for.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Sep 22, 2015 at 15:44
  • While not strictly an example of degree revocation (the "misconduct" occurred after finishing degree requirements but before the degree was conferred, so withholding the degree is probably legal), the case of Chad Hardy is.. definitely worth reading.
    – ff524
    Commented Sep 22, 2015 at 17:54
  • Does this question assume that the degree is not retracted because something was found out after the degree, which would invalidate the degree itself? For example, the case is not that plagiarism or cheating during the completion of the degree was found out after the degree was awarded? If so, such retraction can cause a dangerous precedent, for example, a university holding a certain set of political beliefs retracting a degree because the degree holder said "something outrageous" later...
    – vsz
    Commented Sep 22, 2015 at 19:38
  • 5
    Public or private university? @ff524: BYU is a private religious university (98.5% LDS) which moreover expels any student who loses or changes their Mormon faith. This would be totally illegal at public universities in the US or other countries.
    – smci
    Commented Sep 22, 2015 at 20:59
  • See abc.net.au/news/2015-05-28/…
    – santa
    Commented Sep 22, 2015 at 23:53

8 Answers 8


It would depend on the jurisdiction. 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. In Europe, the legal basis may be different. Whereas in much of Europe state law governs revocation, in the US revocation is governed by university rules.

In the case of Dutch psychologist Diederik Stapel, the thesis data had been destroyed so it was impossible to prove fraud in the thesis, and also impossible to disprove it (Stapel short-circuited the university's proceedings by returning his degree). It appears that there are, in The Netherlands and possibly other European nations, vows that you must take in order to receive the degree, to act honorably (defined locally). "Not committing fraud in the future" is a likely candidate for such a vow.

  • 1
    That's interesting, do you happen to have a reference for the U.S. legal situation you describe (property rights etc.)?
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Sep 22, 2015 at 18:16
  • 15
    For instance from 813 F. 2d 88 - Crook III v. Baker, “The argument is that the grant of a degree vests in the grantee a valuable property right, and the grantor, here the Regents, can no more rescind the grant than one can, without court action, rescind the sale of land or gift of personalty,” “The district court concluded that Crook's master's degree constituted an important property interest…we assume these propositions, arguendo, and accept them as givens”. In a case in 1334 involving Cambridge, CJ Pratt stated that "a man shall not be deprived of his property without being heard".
    – user6726
    Commented Sep 22, 2015 at 18:53
  • 2
    Huh, that is... surprising. I'd always thought that in the US, the actual degree was an abstract idea, namely the fact that you successfully completed a set of requirements (subject to verification by the university registrar, if one cared to check), and that the actual piece of paper was just for show.
    – David Z
    Commented Sep 23, 2015 at 18:28
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    @DavidZ Abstract ideas can still be property. See, for example, your bank balance.
    – JeffE
    Commented Sep 23, 2015 at 22:06
  • 1
    @JeffE Or any intellectual property. Commented Sep 24, 2015 at 1:04

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.

  • 3
    Fascinating. According to the Wikipedia page you linked to, the revocation decision was challenged in court and was only confirmed after a prolonged legal battle involving state and federal courts. I'm wondering if there is perhaps more to the story than what you say -- perhaps the investigation into Schön's publication and data also led to some suspicions regarding the results of his Ph.D., and that was used as the basis for the revocation of his degree?
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Sep 22, 2015 at 15:50
  • 8
    The university's press release about the revocation explicitly states: ‘Nicht in Zusammenhang mit Fälschungen während der Anfertigung seiner Doktorarbeit verliert Schön seinen Titel, sondern wegen seines späteren Fehlverhaltens.’ (‘Schön is not losing his title in connection with falsifications during the preparation of his doctoral work, but rather due to his later misconduct.’)
    – Pont
    Commented Sep 23, 2015 at 7:05
  • 7
    Well, seems like we have the same alma mater, However, this case in very specific for Germany, even for the state Baden-Württemberg, where this happened. It is simply stated by the law (§4 AkaGrG) that a PhD can be revoked "wenn sich der Inhaber durch sein späteres Verhalten der Führung eines akademischen Grades unwürdig erwiesen hat." (if the owner proves himself dishonourable by his later behaviour to hold an academic degree). Note that this not apply to Bachelor/Master titles and not even to all German states!
    – dirkk
    Commented Sep 23, 2015 at 9:43
  • 2
    In Germany, the supreme court decided that the revocation of a doctoral degree is possible if someone commited scientific misconduct (see bundesverfassungsgericht.de/SharedDocs/Pressemitteilungen/DE/…). Still, it depends first on the higher education legislation of the federal states (see for a list academics.de/wissenschaft/…) and second on local doctoral regulations. Commented Sep 23, 2015 at 15:22
  • 4
    @StephanKolassa And doing academic research myself, I fully agree. Well, in a sense I also agree. I wish we could claim that PhD holders are all honorable and honest people who dedicate their lives to the betterment of mankind. Sadly this is not true. Many PhDs pursue societally harmful careers in the service of evil corporations or regimes, e.g. Werner Heisenberg working for the Nazis and Robert Kehoe (who was an M.D.) defending the leaded gasoline industry. So I say we should leave honor to philosophers and let the PhD stand for what it actually represents, i.e. the ability to do research.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Sep 23, 2015 at 18:02

In the vast majority of universities from the Spanish speaking world the degree is not revoked even when they learn, after the degree is granted, that the holder plagiarized in the thesis that was presented for that degree. This is sad because the lack of academic integrity by the universities that have been put on the spotlight affect the region as a whole.

For example in Guatemala, the University of San Carlos learned in 2014 from political magazine Contrapoder that then presidential candidate Manuel Baldizón plagiarized his PhD thesis. As a result the university assembled a council to decide on how to proceed. After deliberating for over 60 days, and without even looking at the evidence!, they decided that due to the lack of internal regulations there was nothing that they could do, therefore Baldizon’s PhD was upheld and valid.

Back in 2013 the University of Valencia, Spain came to the same conclusion. Except that they did not even form a council.

There are many other cases like this through Latin America. The latest high profile case is in Peru. Former presidential candidate César Acuña has been accused by the press for plagiarizing the thesis that granted him a PhD from the Complutense University of Madrid, Spain.

In the Dominican Republic current president Danilo Medina not only plagiarized the thesis the earned him his bachelor’s degree, he did not even complete the credits for the undergrad program. This case came to light when he was still a candidate. He reached office. And the person that denounced him was fired from his administrative post at the Autonomous University of Santo Domingo.

In Mexico, Boris Berenzon from the National Autonomous University was fired due to “inadequate academic practices”. Not only did he plagiarize both his Master’s and Doctorate’s thesis but also books and dissertations that he presented as his own in international forums. He was fired but his degrees, from that same university, have not been revoked.

One exception is from The Colegio the Mexico. They revoked the PhD degree from Rodrigo Núñez Arancibia after it was proven that the thesis he wrote to earn him that degree contained plagiarized material. And he was a fired from his post at the Michoacan University of San Nicolas Hidalgo.

While it took less than six months to find Núñez guilty of all chargers, it took more than 10 years to find that Mr. Berenzon’s academic practices were substandard. What is different in Núñez’s case from Berenzon’s? Why was the degree revoked from Núñez and not from Berenzon? Their respective thesis were just one of many of their works that contained plagiarized material, they both stole the work of other authors for books and arbitrated articles that they signed as their own. What is different then?

Mexico is very sensitive to criticism from abroad, especially from the USA. While those protesting Berenzon’s frauds included students and domestic authors, Núñez plagiarized material from North American authors. Professors Susan Schroeder from Tulane University; Stafford Poole from St. John's Seminary College; Sonya Lipsett-Rivera from Carleton University; John Chuchiack from Missouri State University, and Martha Few from the University of Arizona, reported that in 2014 Nunez plagiarized in its entirely the book “Religion in New Spain”, a book from University of New Mexico Press. This prompted an immediate scrutiny of all of Núñez’s work, including his PhD Thesis.

It is unfortunate but turning a blind eye to thesis plagiarism by some universities in Latin America and Spain questions the integrity of all degrees coming from that region. If you read Spanish check www.plagios.info


The Phd degree of Jan Hendrik Schön was revoked after it came to light that he had falsified data after obtaining his Phd because of "dishonourable conduct". He tried to sue the university to give his PhD back but lost several cases up to the highest possible court. His PhD remains revoked.

This all happened in Germany. I am not sure if this is possible in other countries.


I was told, by a friend, whose Ph.D. is from an Austrian university, that Austrian doctorates can be revoked if used fraudulently. The example he gave is that if he writes a bad check and signs it "Dr. XYZ" then his degree could be revoked. But if he just signs "XYZ" then his degree is safe because it wasn't used in the fraud. (He added that, as a result, people would be suspicious if they know he has a doctorate and he signs a check with just "XYZ".)

  • 3
    This sounds like an urban legend more than a real fact.
    – user9646
    Commented Mar 16, 2018 at 16:51

In Germany, a PhD may be revoked in case of

  1. a wilful act resulting in a prison sentence of one year or more, or
  2. 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.

  • Interesting. In cases where this actually happens, can the former degree holder complete a rehabilitation process and get their degree reinstated, or do they have to start from the beginning and produce a new dissertation? Commented Jul 31, 2018 at 19:44
  • Hi. A couple of questions: is this only for honorary degrees, or for formal ones? Second, does the wilful act have to have taken place during the degree?
    – user96809
    Commented Aug 8, 2020 at 19:05
  • @Araucaria-Nothereanymore. No, these are for all PhD degrees, in particular usual ones (where you wrote a proper thesis) and the "wilful act" can have occurred after obtaining your degree.
    – Earthliŋ
    Commented Aug 8, 2020 at 22:37
  • Thanks, last question, are there any examples of students where degrees have been revoked on account of a prison sentence? (unrelated to academic fraud, of course)
    – user96809
    Commented Aug 9, 2020 at 14:36
  • @Araucaria This does seem to exist, yes. I found this newspaper article where the crime (repeated bribery of a university professor) also involves a university, but the crime is not directly related to the PhD degree/thesis (which seems to have been obtained perfectly legitimately). This was one of the first articles I found, so I expect there to be more examples. (The prison sentence was 3.5 years.)
    – Earthliŋ
    Commented Aug 9, 2020 at 16:28

Just once extra piece of data is that Cambridge are in the process of retracting this guy's degree for a pedophile conviction according to the article. It's unrelated and they are not saying that he didn't deserve the degree just that they don't like him (nor do I but I always assumed after you got the degree you couldn't have it taken away).

I think this type of thing for thought crime may become far more common in the future.


Of course it is possible. They granted the degree, they can revoke it in some form as well. These are informal, unspoken social agreements. There (likely) is no agreement that says otherwise.

In practice, however, this may be poor policy. It would be better for the University to create a list of those who are in good standing, and suggest nothing more about those who are not -- for it was equally a failure of the University for granting the degree.

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