Durham County

Instructor’s attempt to ban student journalists from her class puts Duke on the spot

Duke University officials stepped in after the student newspaper reported that its staff had been barred from enrolling in a course about hedge funds.
Duke University officials stepped in after the student newspaper reported that its staff had been barred from enrolling in a course about hedge funds. The Herald-Sun

A Duke University economics lecturer got a lesson in Public Relations 101 this week after the campus newspaper discovered that she’d tried to forbid its staffers from enrolling in her hedge-funds class.

The paper, the Duke Chronicle, quickly assembled and published an article highlighting that lecturer Linsey Lebowitz Hughes had specified on the syllabus of the enrollment-by permission course that “anyone who is on the staff of The Chronicle is not permitted to take this class.”

The revelation prompted a speedy disavowal from the Duke administration, with Vice President for Public Affairs and Government Relations Michael Schoenfeld telling The Herald-Sun on Wednesday that Hughes “was notified that that was not appropriate.”

Hughes has since, “I understand, acknowledged [that] and apologized to anybody who asked her about it,” Schoenfeld said, adding that the syllabus notice looked like “a clumsy attempt to indicate that guest speakers should be considered off the record” and that “there’s no indication” the ban had actually been enforced.

“In any case, no student should or will or has ever been barred from enrolling in a class at Duke because of their affiliation with a student organization, whether it’s The Chronicle or anything else,” he added.

But for people at The Chronicle who like other students nominally are on the hook for paying Duke $53,744 a year in tuition and fees just to attend the university, the issue’s no laughing matter, said Scott McCartney, a Wall Street Journal travel writer who nowadays chairs the board of the nonprofit that owns the student paper.

“I think it’s pretty serious,” said McCartney, a 1982 Duke graduate and former Chronicle editor. “They’re students. They’re paying tuition. They’re entitled to all the same rights as any other student.”

He added that he hopes the matter’s been “put to bed” because the administration “understands that it’s wrong.”

Hughes apparently has been an “executive in residence” at Duke since August 2013, and has taught the “Inside Hedge Funds” classes a number of times. It’s on the schedule for the upcoming spring semester, and was also offered this semester.

Her status as a lecturing fellow by definition comes with the understanding she is to apply her “disciplinary training and interest to design courses,” as policy for Trinity College puts it. Trinity is Duke’s college of arts and sciences, the umbrella organization for most of its undergraduate programs.

The Chronicle obtained copies of the hedge-fund course syllabus from the fall 2014, fall 2015 and spring 2017 semesters. All contained the no-Chronicle-staff notice, embedded in a broader instruction that students aren’t permitted to make audio recordings of the class and that they’re “asked to keep the information shared by some of our guest speakers confidential.”

The spring 2017 semester syllabus listed only three guest speakers, namely Ranjit Ahluwalia of Silver Point Capital Management, Todd Westhus of Perry Capital Management and Josh Shapiro of the UNC Management Co. Inc.

UNC Management handles endowment investments for UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. Central University and a number of other schools in the public UNC system. The 2014 and 2015 syllabi from Hughes’ course indicate that Justin Dixon, an executive from the Duke Management Co, Duke’s in-house endowment-fund manager, was among the guest speakers those semesters.

As a private university, Duke doesn’t discuss its investment practices publicly. UNC Management executives shy away from press contact, but they nonetheless brief campus trustees at UNC schools and do so publicly under the terms of the state’s Open Meetings and Public Records laws.

Schoenfeld said it’s “not an uncommon practice for faculty or for guest speakers in a class to ask that their comments be off the record” for purposes of press coverage.

“It’s not an unreasonable request for individuals sharing and wanting that candid conversation in the classroom,” he added.

But McCartney said because of the prevalence of social media it’s “naive” to think confidentiality will always hold. And with finance matters, there are regulatory issues that add to the concern.

“I don’t think there’s any fund manager that wouldn’t understand that telling people to keep it to themselves does not ... it’s just fraught with danger,” he said. “I don’t know what kind of confidential information a hedge fund manager would be talking about in a class.”

It’d make as much sense, in that light, to ban students whose parents are “involved in a rival hedge fund” or trade stocks and bonds, or students who trade stocks and bonds themselves, he said.

“But that’s all beside the point,” McCartney said. “If you want to make it confidential, fine, but you can trust the student who works for The Chronicle just as you can trust any other Duke student.”

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg