What Are Students Learning? Make Syllabi Public

Online education, especially as it has been implemented in the past year, isn’t for everyone. But it has had one unexpected benefit: transparency. Across the country, parents have had a chance to see for themselves what their children are learning. At the K-12 level, it’s been eye-opening.

But college students need less supervision. So, even though many of them have been learning from home, parents haven’t been hovering over their shoulders during class. But the same transparency is sorely needed. Parents—and taxpayers—should know what their hard-earned money is paying for.

But it’s not always easy to find out what students are actually learning. The Martin Center recently received this response to a public records request for education school curricula at NC State:

NC State University faculty own the copyright to their course syllabi, not the university (see Copyright regulation, as a Traditional Work: https://policies.ncsu.edu/regulation/reg-01-25-03/). These faculty have declined the opportunity to provide their syllabi in response to your request. Therefore, NC State University has no public records responsive to your request.

Despite NC State’s claim, it’s not at all clear that professors’ syllabi are protected from examination and transparency. Indeed, a review of Federal law and UNC system policy suggests that NC State incorrectly cites copyright as a way to shield professors from scrutiny. (It’s also worth noting that syllabi are not included in the university’s list of generally accepted “traditional works.”)

According to the federal law on “fair use,” some copyrighted material can be used for nonprofit and educational purposes, including news reporting. The law states:

…the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include—

(1)  the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;

(2) the nature of the copyrighted work;

(3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and

(4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

The fact that a work is unpublished shall not itself bar a finding of fair use if such finding is made upon consideration of all the above factors.

Public records requests from news and public policy organizations are very clearly included under the fair use interpretation. “Criticism, comment, news reporting” and “nonprofit educational purposes” are specifically cited as justifications for fair use. 

UNC System policy makes it clear that faculty are expected to comply with all copyright laws, including those on fair use. It states

The University of North Carolina, through its constituent institutions, is committed to complying with all applicable laws regarding copyright and patents. The University, as an institution devoted to the creation, discovery, and dissemination of knowledge, supports (1) the responsible, good faith exercise of full fair use rights, as codified in 17 U.S.C. § 107, by faculty, librarians, and staff in furtherance of their teaching, research, and service activities.

Nonetheless, many faculty members—at NC State and across the country—cite copyright protection to keep their syllabi secret and shielded from scrutiny. The American Association of University Professors, a membership organization dedicated to faculty rights, embraces this position.

North Carolina policymakers should step in to ensure that syllabi are publicly available. Professors at public institutions shouldn’t have the option to withhold basic instructional materials from the public.

In a 2008 report entitled “Opening Up the Classroom: Greater Transparency through Better, More Accessible Course Information, the Martin Center’s Jay Schalin argued for syllabi to be made public. He explained that making syllabi publicly available balances demands for transparency at public institutions with the core tenets of academic freedom:

[O]nline syllabi provide a solution that infringes upon nobody’s rights to teach freely: truth in advertising. If students can check the syllabus beforehand, nobody has to worry about entering a hostile or offensive classroom. And Mom and Dad can better see what they are writing tuition checks for–let there be a “marketplace of ideas.”

At least one state has passed legislation to ensure that public university syllabi are publicly available.  A 2009 Texas law mandates that public institutions post syllabi online. Syllabi must include “a brief description of each major course requirement, including each major assignment and examination” as well as “a general description of the subject matter of each lecture or discussion” and a list of required readings.

The University of Florida provides a model for syllabus transparency. At UF, a universitywide policy requires that all syllabi be posted online in a single, easy-to-use directory of courses. Such a model has benefits for students, in addition to making the university more transparent. It enables students to accurately predict what will be covered in class, which helps them to plan their course loads and enroll for the content they want and need.

North Carolina should follow suit. Students, parents, and taxpayers should be able to easily find out what is being taught in courses at public universities. Transparency, accountability, and practical considerations would be better served by syllabi being treated as public information. The state of Texas and the University of Florida have provided the models we need. Now it’s North Carolina’s turn.

Jenna A. Robinson is president of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.