Persona Non Grata

Syllabus at Duke barred staffers of campus paper from class on hedge funds.

November 8, 2017
 

For Duke University students interested in learning about hedge funds and the economic forces that drive them, Economics 381S -- Inside Hedge Funds, taught by Linsey Lebowitz Hughes, a lecturing fellow of economics -- is probably a good place to start.

There’s just one small catch, found six bullet points down on the front page of the course syllabus.

“Anyone who is on the staff of The Chronicle is not permitted to take this class.”

Upon coming across this stipulation, staffers at The Chronicle, Duke’s student newspaper, naturally wrote an article about it. Economics department officials have remained tight-lipped since. In full, the bullet point barring student journalists from the class reads as follows (emphasis original):

Audio recordings of this class are not permitted and students will be asked to keep the information shared by some of our guest speakers confidential. Anyone who is on the staff of The Chronicle is not permitted to take this class. Please honor this in order that we can continue to get high-quality visitors & information.

The university has said that there’s no indication the stipulation has ever been enforced -- although there would be no record of students declining to take a course after seeing the syllabus. The stipulation has since been removed from the syllabus, but its discovery caused concern and outcry from student-media advocates at Duke and elsewhere nonetheless.

Taking a cue from Hughes's apparent playbook for dealing with journalists, Emma Raisel, the associate chair of the economics department, and Connell Fullenkamp, the director of undergraduate studies for the department, referred Inside Higher Ed to university spokesman Michael Schoenfeld when asked for comment. Hughes did not respond to a request for comment.

Other than to say he was happy that, according to his understanding, a Chronicle staffer has never been denied a place in the class, economics department chair Craig Burnside also referred comment to Schoenfeld.

“I’ve been in student media for a very long time now,” said Chrissy Beck, general manager for The Chronicle since 2008. “I just don’t remember anything like this ever coming up.”

In an email, Schoenfeld said that the syllabus’s phrasing was a “clumsy way of saying that guest speakers should be considered off the record so that they could be candid in their conversations with students.” Of course, the phrase “off the record” never appears in the syllabus guidelines, and, per the syllabus’s guidelines, student journalists from other outlets aren’t explicitly barred from taking the course.

Scott McCartney, chair of the Duke Student Publishing Company, called the stipulation "absurd," especially since student journalists would be more familiar with the difference between off-the-record and on-the-record interactions than most students. He added that there are plenty of instances when other students might have a conflict taking the class, but the syllabus doesn't address them specifically.

"I thought [the policy] was appalling. These kids are first and foremost students," he said. "The notion that you would not trust those students, but you would trust other students who are on social media constantly, or have parents who are traders -- there's a million financial connections people could have."

Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida, said in an email that a ban on journalists taking a class doesn’t make sense, given the general public’s ability to post to the internet via blogs or social media. Hughes’s policy of secrecy also raises questions of the content she and the speakers are delivering, LoMonte said.

“It's really a civically toxic notion that honest conversations can happen only behind closed doors,” he said. “If speakers are saying things they don't think can withstand the light of public scrutiny, that's probably a pretty good signal that they're saying something indefensible. There are plenty of high-quality speakers who won't impose such antiquated conditions, and those are the speakers that colleges should be rewarding and showcasing.”

Enrolling in the course requires permission from the instructor, and Beck said she worried if, over the years, anyone on the Chronicle staff had been denied because of their affiliation with the paper. Schoenfeld said that there was no indication that portion of the syllabus had ever been enforced, although archived versions of the fall 2014 and fall 2015 syllabi include the same stipulations.

“No one was, or ever will be, barred from enrolling in any class because they are affiliated with The Duke Chronicle or any other student organization,” Schoenfeld said.

Beck credited the paper’s coverage as a catalyst to change the policy, even if it appears it was never enforced.

In fairness to Hughes, hedge fund managers and those affiliated with them should probably be wary of journalists. Between the Panama Papers and, more recently, the Paradise Papers document leaks, journalists have made a point of holding hedge funds and other members of the international finance industry accountable for helping the ultrawealthy evade taxes by hiding money through shell companies and in tax havens.

This is, presumably, rather annoying for hedge fund managers.

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