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Revocation of doctoral degree because of “unworthiness” only for scholarship-related offences

Press Release No. 85/2014 of 01 October 2014

Order of 03 September 2014
1 BvR 3353/13

As the Third Chamber of the Federal Constitutional Court’s First Senate held in a decision published today, a doctoral degree may only be revoked because of unworthiness” in case of scholarship-related offences. The complainant had challenged administrative-court judgments which held the revocation of his doctoral degree because of manipulated research to be lawful. The Federal Constitutional Court did not admit the constitutional complaint for decision. The Chamber clarified that interpreting the legal criterion “unworthiness” by referring to the specific characteristics of scholarship and the meaning of academic titles is compatible with the constitutional requirement of definiteness of legal provisions.

Facts of the Case and Course of the Proceedings:

The complainant is a physicist who held a doctoral degree in natural sciences from the University of K. After he had obtained this degree, he worked at a research institution in the United States. In May 2002, the institution formed a commission to resolve allegations from the scientific community that the complainant had engaged in scientific misconduct in his publications. The commission concluded that the complainant had not thoroughly archived the original data and samples of the experiments he had described, and that he had manipulated and misrepresented data. As a result, the University’s doctoral committee revoked the complainant’s doctoral degree in 2004.

Before the administrative court, the complainant successfully challenged this decision. The Higher Administrative Court however dismissed his claim. The court argued that someone holding a doctoral degree proves himself “unworthy” of the title within the meaning of the Baden-Wuerttemberg Higher Education Act (Landeshochschulgesetz) if he seriously violates the standards of good scientific practice, especially if he falsifies the results of his research. The Federal Administrative Court rejected the complainant’s appeal on points of law. It held, inter alia, that the Higher Administrative Court’s scholarship-related interpretation of the relevant legal criteria was sufficiently definite.

Key Considerations of the Chamber:

The constitutional complaint against the administrative-court judgments and, indirectly, against § 35 sec. 7 (now § 36 sec. 7) of the Baden-Wuerttemberg Higher Education Act is not successful.

1. As interpreted by the courts, the provision on the revocation of a doctoral degree because of unworthiness does not violate the constitutional requirement of definiteness.

A statutory provision fulfils the requirement of definiteness if the provision and its purpose provide guidance for the interpretation of undefined legal concepts. On its own, the notion of “worthiness” is fuzzy. In the law governing research and scholarship, however, it can be defined more precisely by looking at the nature and meaning of an academic degree. Such scholarship-related understanding entails a restrictive approach, since worthiness directly refers to technical and scientific qualifications connected with the doctoral degree. The misconduct causing unworthiness is thus functionally linked to the nature and meaning of the academic degree. The Federal Administrative Court has rightly pointed out that the criterion of unworthiness must be interpreted exclusively with a view to research and scholarship, and that one cannot usually revoke an academic title for misconduct outside of academia and the sciences. To base a decision about unworthiness on criteria which have no legal basis – such as the frustration of traditional social meanings of a doctoral degree – would violate the requirement of definiteness. As such, universities are not competent to express and enforce value judgments that lie outside the area of research and scholarship.

2. The interferences with the complainant’s freedom of occupation (Art. 12 sec. 1 sentence 1 of the Basic Law) and his freedom of research and scholarship (Art. 5 sec. 3 sentence 1 of the Basic Law) are proportionate; there are no constitutional objections against the respective findings of the Federal Administrative Court.