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The Duke Economics Department: Serving the Real Constituency of New Gilded Age Higher Education, Hedge Fund Managers

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What’s truly important in higher education is for student journalists to be barred from classrooms so that rich people can feel comfortable saying whatever they want without accountability. Or at least that’s how it is at Duke.

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.”

I love that it is the Economics Department involved in bringing these speakers in and enforcing this rule. Nothing like a social “science” that exists to be the running dogs of capitalism. Doesn’t have to be that way of course. But it usually is.

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