(TNS) — DURHAM, N.C. — Duke University professors received email this week from a student impostor seeking information about the content of certain academic courses.
The emails, sent by someone who claimed to be a Duke student named "Gary Joe," prompted the university's information technology staff to warn faculty about the scam. The university said there was no such student enrolled and advised faculty not to respond to the messages. "This is not the first time this sender has attempted to obtain class information from Duke professors and these attempts will likely continue," the university posted in its warning.
Ara Wilson, an associate professor of women's studies, received the email and became skeptical about the sender. The message said: "My name is Gary and I am a student here at Duke, looking at what to take next semester. Your course on Money, Sex and Power caught my eye. I was wondering whether you would be able to send me any sort of sample reading list, so that I could get a better idea of if the class is right for me."
Wilson said her class is full and registration had already wrapped up. The timing of the query was strange, and it wasn't sent from a Duke account.
She tweeted a copy of the email and soon discovered that other faculty, maybe a dozen, had received almost identical messages, she said. The emails went to professors who teach courses in gender and ethnic studies, the environment and other topics that are often the target of conservative critics and websites.
"I think that they're looking for liberal bias," she said. "I do believe that that's what they're doing, and I think that they imagine that higher education is a site for liberal brainwashing."
Wilson, who has tenure, said she isn't worried about the scrutiny, but others may feel less secure. She said she teaches from a wide range of perspectives and assigns her students to read conservative favorite Ayn Rand, as well as writers with a liberal viewpoint.
She said she's concerned about "the surveillance" of higher education in a highly partisan climate, especially at public universities. "A lot of us are quite concerned that this could intensify under the new [Trump] administration," she said.
A "Professor Watchlist" website by the conservative nonprofit Turning Point USA was in the news recently for publishing a list of several hundred professors it labeled as pushing "leftist propaganda." On Christmas Day, Drexel University condemned one of its professors for tweeting, "All I want for Christmas is white genocide," a comment the professor said was satirical.
Michael Schoenfeld, Duke's vice president for public affairs and government relations, said the university isn't investigating the matter further.
"We do get inquiries from activists seeking information and statements that they can take out of context and use to embarrass the university or individual faculty members," Schoenfeld said in an email. "That kind of trolling is often pretty transparent and gets ignored, as it should. However, I do think those of us in higher education have developed a heightened awareness of outside efforts to weaponize teaching and research that takes place on campus in order to advance a particular agenda."
Eileen Chow, who teaches in Duke's Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, received the "Gary Joe" email, which inquired about her course called "Chinatowns: A Cultural History." She wasn't surprised, she said, because she's been "trolled" in the past. The course is a history of immigrants in the United States and elsewhere.
Chow, who is from Taiwan, said her father was a political science professor during an era of martial law. "It's almost like a movie I've seen before," she said, adding that in studying journalism in Asia she has found that "the most effective censorship is self-censorship."
©2016 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.), distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.