Who owns your syllabus?

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An interesting court decision involving faculty intellectual property came down last week. The Missouri Court of Appeals Western District ruled on August 26 that The University of Missouri System does not have to release course syllabi because they are protected by copyright laws. The ruling upheld a previous lower court decision. According to the appeals court, syllabi are the intellectual property of the faculty, and are therefore protected from disclosure under the federal Copyright Act and exempt from a state “sunshine” statute. The National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) had filed suit against the University in 2012 after the system declined to release syllabi to the group for a college evaluation project it had undertaken in cooperation with U.S. News and World Report.

“In responding to the NCTQ’s request for course syllabi, we felt it was important to respect the rights of the faculty members who created the syllabi,” John Fougere, the university system’s spokesman, said in a statement. “We are glad that both courts to review the matter have concluded that we acted lawfully.”

NCTQ President Kate Walsh disagreed, of course. “It’s an argument that I think is a strange one for universities to argue,” Walsh said. “I would imagine that universities don’t want it on record that the syllabi that professors prepare as employees of the university don’t really belong to [the university]. I don’t understand why universities would want to argue that case.”

So there we have it. For educational “reformers” like Walsh, professors are simply employees whose work belongs to their employer. Sadly, that’s increasingly the attitude of too many university administrators as well. It’s encouraging that at least in Missouri the administration has resisted the temptation to claim what is not rightfully theirs.

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