False Inquiries

Duke warns professors about emails from someone claiming to be a student, seeking information about their courses -- many in fields criticized by some on the right. Some Michigan and Denver faculty members have received similar emails but from different source.

January 3, 2017
From Duke's IT security alert

Duke University professors took to social media Dec. 27 to see if they could trust emails from someone claiming to be a student, seeking information about reading lists in their courses for the coming semester.

It is unclear how many Duke professors received the emails, and this is a time of year when some faculty members aren't checking email regularly. But those who went public with the emails noticed that the courses about which the purported student was seeking information all happened to be the types of classes that some right-wing bloggers like to criticize. The person sending the email sought information, for example, on courses called Money, Sex and Power; Energy and Environmental Justice; and Religion and Mass Incarceration. The email messages, which did not come from a Duke email account, were very similar in asking for a reading list so the alleged student "could get a better idea of if [sic] the class is right for me."

Professors who shared the emails they received said they would try to answer such questions from a Duke student but didn't want to inadvertently help someone trying to attack either higher education generally or certain fields of study. Many cited the mood in academe in a time when new groups like Professor Watchlist are appearing. The list is for people to name faculty members who "promote anti-American values and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.”

Ara Wilson, associate professor of women's studies at Duke, said via email that she responded to the email, offering to send a syllabus for Money, Sex and Power if the person seeking her out sent her a Duke email address, but the person who sent the email claimed that his Duke account didn't work.

The emails came from someone using the name Gary Joe, but Duke says no such person is a current student. The university sent out an alert to faculty members Tuesday suggesting they not respond to the alleged student, and said that he has tried before to get information from faculty members about Duke classes.

Inside Higher Ed sent an email to Gary Joe seeking to find out who he is and why he is sending the email. He did not respond, but this article will be updated if he does.

Since word of the Duke emails has spread, some reports on social media have said that the person involved may also be sending email messages to University of Michigan professors. A spokesman for Michigan confirmed that eight to 10 faculty members there -- all of whom teach courses on Islam, Asia, African-American or ethnic studies -- have received similar email messages. But those at Michigan come from an individual known to the university who periodically sends requests to faculty members. Michigan officials do not believe this person is linked to the Duke email messages.

Two University of Denver faculty members have also received similar messages.

Here are some of the comments on Twitter about the emails sent to Duke professors.


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