Consent required: Can professors exclude certain students from taking their classes?

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

Last Thursday, when I read that sentence out loud, I was met with audible gasps and bewildered looks from other members of The Chronicle staff. It came from the online version of a Spring 2017 syllabus for the course Economics 381S, “Inside Hedge Funds,” taught by Linsey Lebowitz Hughes, lecturing fellow of economics. Hughes has been teaching the course—which requires instructor consent—since at least 2014. She could not be reached for comment.

The full quote from the syllabus reads:

“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 and information.”

Scott McCartney—Trinity '82, chair of the Duke Student Publishing Company board and former editor-in-chief of The Chronicle—wrote in an email that students shouldn’t be discouraged from taking classes because of their student organization affiliations.

“No student should be barred from a class because of extracurricular activities, and no Duke class should be hidden from open access to the university community,” wrote McCartney, who also writes a travel column for The Wall Street Journal. “To ban Chronicle staffers from a class is absurd discrimination and shouldn't be tolerated by Duke.”

According to an in-house demographics survey administered last Spring, about eight percent of Chronicle staffers were economics majors.

Emma Rasiel, professor of the practice of economics and associate chair in economics, wrote in an email Thursday that the language used in the syllabus was meant to highlight the importance of confidentiality, not to “disallow” Chronicle members.

“I would stress that the language was a poorly worded attempt to remind students that the comments of guest speakers should be considered 'off the record' and not reported in the media or on social media,” Rasiel wrote in an email Friday. “This common practice provides students and speakers with the opportunity to have a candid conversation.”

The online syllabus for “Inside Hedge Funds” for Spring 2017 has since been taken down. However, the syllabi for Fall 2014 and Fall 2015 are still online. Additionally, The Chronicle secured a copy of the Spring 2017 syllabus prior to its takedown, which can be viewed below.

Raisel added that the comment about Chronicle staffers was not included on DukeHub, so Chronicle members wouldn’t necessarily be discouraged from requesting a permission number. She wrote that the department will try to ensure that such an incident won't occur again.

“No student will be prevented from enrolling in the class and we are very sorry that there has been any perception that any student group is being excluded, and will take steps to ensure that this does not happen again,” she wrote.

Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, wrote in an email Tuesday that the 'ban' of Chronicle staff members that may have been implied in the syllabus for "Inside Hedge Funds" has never been enforced.

"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 wrote.

Instructor consent required

Many other classes require instructor consent for a variety of reasons.

For Susie Post-Rust, instructor in the Center for Documentary Studies, and Robert Korstad, professor of public policy and history, classifying their courses as “Instructor Consent Required” has been a way to make sure students who enroll “know what they’re getting into.” 

Post-Rust teaches “Small Town USA,” a course that requires students to take photos and spend a lot of time in Hillsborough, N.C. She asks interested students to send her an email detailing their experience with photography and asks inexperienced students to meet with her outside of class. 

Other courses—such as major or minor requirements—can also require instructor consent to ensure that people in those programs get into the class. John Campbell, associate registrar and senior associate director of Student Information Services and Systems Office, added that independent study courses also fall in that category.

Daniel Dunn, an assistant research professor with the Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab, teaches “Marine Science and Conservation Leadership,” a requirement for the Marine Science and Conservation Leadership certificate.

“I use permission numbers to ensure that students in those programs are able to enroll and to confirm that other interested students have some background in marine science, ecology, conservation or environmental policy before they enroll,” he wrote in an email.

Campbell noted that the decisions about which courses require permission numbers and which do not are left to individual departments.

“Departments have a lot of control on whether or not instructor consent is required,” he said.

Schoenfeld also noted that syllabi for courses are not checked by administrators.

"Since faculty have wide, almost unlimited, latitude in creating courses, individual syllabi are not reviewed or approved by administrators," he wrote Monday. "But, as soon as this issue was brought to the attention of the economics department the instructor was asked to delete it (which she did) and expressed her regret for the confusion."

Korstad, who has used permission numbers for his course “History of Poverty in the United States,” said that he usually consults with the registrar, director of undergraduate studies or director of graduate studies for the Sanford School of Public Policy when he classifies a course as requiring instructor consent. He added that though there is faculty oversight, the possibility still exists that professors could use permission numbers to target certain types of students.

“[Professors] could use this to discriminate against students you don't want in your class. If you want some particular perspective or point of view, that could happen,” he said. “I would never do something like that. But I could imagine that there are people who do do that.”

Here is the full Spring 2017 syllabus for "Inside Hedge Funds":

Editor's note: Hughes' address has been redacted on the uploaded syllabus. This article was updated Monday night to add Schoenfeld's comments.

Likhitha Butchireddygari

Follow Likhitha on Twitter

Class of 2019

Editor-in-chief 2017-18, 

Local and national news department head 2016-17

Born in Hyderabad, India, Likhitha Butchireddygari moved to Baltimore at a young age. She is pursuing a Program II major entitled "Digital Democracy and Data" about the future of the American democracy.


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