After many legal proceedings over a span of five years, District Judge Karin Crump ruled Feb. 11 the University does not have the authority to revoke a UT graduate’s degree.
Suvi Orr graduated from UT in 2008 with a Ph.D. in chemistry. She was notified in 2012 that UT was investigating her dissertation for allegations of scientific misconduct.
“I was ready to defend my research and my skills when I first heard about it,” Orr said. “I asked UT to provide fairness and transparency, but I quickly discovered that the process was inherently biased, especially when I heard the role that professor Martin was playing.”
Chemistry professor Stephen Martin was Orr’s dissertation supervisor. In 2011, Orr said Martin asked her about publishing a portion of her research in peer-reviewed journal Organic Letters. Orr said she was not interested in publishing, but agreed when Martin and another postdoctoral researcher drafted the paper, and Martin told Orr her work had already been reproduced by the postdoctoral researcher.
According to the American Chemical Society, the Organic Letters article was retracted in 2012 because two steps in the synthesis could not be reproduced. Martin then made the complaint against Orr for academic misconduct, and in 2014, UT informed Orr her degree would be revoked.
Orr sued the University two days later, stating she was not given due process of law. UT restored her degree immediately and Orr’s lawsuit was dismissed.
UT then initiated a disciplinary hearing for Orr in 2016 by forming a panel of undergraduate students to review her research. Orr sued UT again, saying UT could not revoke her degree based on review from students unfamiliar with complex doctoral work.
Orr’s lawyers cited a 1969 Texas Attorney General opinion by Crawford Martin, which concluded that UT could not revoke the degree of a student, but instead must take the student to court.
David Sergi, one of Orr’s lawyer’s, said such lawsuits allow students fair process in an unbiased environment, since universities may act to protect their own reputations.
Orr’s other lawyer, Anita Kawaja, said Orr has still not been shown the issue with her data. However, Orr said the “fraction” of her research published in the article was insignificant in comparison to her full dissertation and would not have affected the conclusion if removed.
Sergi said the postdoctoral student who reproduced Orr’s work was male and many of Martin’s research students have also cited Orr’s work and have not been questioned.
“Professor Martin, in our opinions, seems to try to discourage women from pursuing advanced degrees in sciences, but that’s just our opinion,” Sergi said.
Martin declined to comment because the investigation is ongoing.
Sergi said Orr’s win provides an important precedent because it requires UT to give due process.
“If you cross ways with a professor and he or she decides to blame you for something … you now actually have robust protections,” Sergi said.
The University plans to appeal Crump’s decision.
“We’ve read the opinion, respectfully disagree with the holding and are currently planning to appeal,” Gary Susswein, UT chief communications officer for the office of the president, said in a statement.
Orr said being involved in the litigation has been difficult, especially as she is a scientist, wife and mother of two young children. Additionally, her request for UT to pay her legal fees was denied by Crump.
“I know (the lawsuits) were the only way I could be treated fairly,” Orr said. “There have been actually many women in the sciences who have reached out to me to show their support and share their experiences, and it means a lot to me that they did.”