Although college and graduate school alumni may assume their diplomas are set in stone, there's no such thing as "no backsies" when it comes to college conferrals, as Joel McHale's character on the television show Community knows. McHale plays Jeff Winger, a lawyer who enrolls in community college after his degree is revoked. School administrators—both on television and in real life—seem to think of the degrees they dole out like driver's licenses, which can be suspended or revoked for bad behavior.
In 1918, University of Pennsylvania trustees struck two honorary degree holders from its record for their activities in World War I: Germany's kaiser and its ambassador to the United States and Mexico.
More recently, some schools have resisted pressure to recall certain degrees. Last February, University of St. Andrews chose not to withdraw Fred Goodwin's honorary doctorate, despite his role in the collapse of the Royal Bank of Scotland. The London School of Economics and Political Science also decided recently to let Muammar Qadhafi's son Saif al-Islam, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, keep his Ph.D.
Here are 10 high-profile cases of universities in the United States and abroad stripping alumni of their academic degrees.
1. Gaming Olympics studies: In April 2012, Pál Schmitt resigned as president of Hungary a week after his doctorate was withdrawn by Semmelweis University in Budapest. According to a BBC report, Semmelweis accused Schmitt, a two-time Olympic fencing gold medalist, of plagiarizing entire passages of his doctoral thesis. There was at least partial copying on nearly 200 pages of Schmitt's 215-page thesis, according to a Semmelweis committee.
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2. Defenseless minister: Although Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, the former German defense minister, seemed to be heir-apparent to Chancellor Angela Merkel, he resigned on March 1, 2011 after admitting to plagiarizing parts of his legal doctorate. Universität Bayreuth revoked his degree, citing "serious errors" in his paper.
Guttenberg isn't the only German politician to be punished by his alma mater. Two members of the European Parliament also lost their degrees due to plagiarism: University of Heidelberg revoked Silvana Koch-Mehrin's doctorate, and Jorgo Chatzimarkakis lost his doctorate from University of Bonn.
3. Pharmaceutical power: In 2008, the College of Business and Economics at West Virginia University announced that it was revoking the E.M.B.A. it had awarded Heather Bresch, the daughter of Joe Manchin III, then West Virginia's governor.
After a committee determined that WVU had awarded Bresch grades "simply pulled from thin air" for courses she didn't complete, the university president and several high-profile administrators resigned, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bresch is also the CEO of a pharmaceutical company, which was cofounded by Milan Puskar, "WVU's largest benefactor" and the namesake of the university's Milan Puskar Stadium, the paper reported.
4. Evolution of a doctorate: Self-declared "scientist working in paleobiology, astronomy, and various other areas; designer for projects including rockets and nuclear devices ... [and] writer," Charles Pellegrino claimed on his website to hold a doctorate from Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand.
After Pellegrino told a New York Times reporter that the university had stripped his degree "because of a dispute over evolutionary theory," the reporter checked back with Victoria administrators. "Pellegrino was never awarded a Ph.D. from Victoria and therefore could not have had it stripped from him or reinstated at a later date," the vice chancellor told the Times.
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5. Mechanical failure: The former head of acquisitions for the Armaments Corporation of South Africa, Shamim "Chippy" Shaik, was stripped of his Ph.D. from then-University of Natal—now University of KwaZulu-Natal—in 2008 following reports he'd plagiarized "more than two-thirds" of his mechanical engineering doctorate.