MU education syllabuses requests spark discussion on intellectual property

Wednesday, September 12, 2012 | 6:41 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — A nonprofit advisory council in Washington, D.C., has requested copies of education program syllabuses from the four University of Missouri campuses, sparking discussion on intellectual property. 

The National Council on Teacher Quality sent an open-records request to the University of Missouri System for a variety of materials related to the teacher education program, including syllabuses, in November 2011. The request was made as part of a review of about 1,100 private and public universities' teacher preparation programs.

In the assessment, schools are assigned a grade ranging from A through F based on criteria including admissions, coursework, licensing exams and student teaching placement, according to the council website. The report is scheduled to be published early next year in cooperation with the U.S. News & World Report. 

In July, the UM System denied the syllabuses request, saying the documents were intellectual property and not subject to open records law. Discussions are still under way to determine if an agreement can be reached. 

"I think what it really comes down to is some faculty view their syllabi as intellectual property," UM System chief of staff Robert Schwartz said. "That's where our discussions are centering. In terms of that, that is why we are looking at not disclosing them from a copyright protection perspective."

Intellectual property is creative work considered to be owned by the maker. The property is not subject to open records laws. 

"We needed to make sure our faculty were protected," said Kathryn Chval, associate dean for academic affairs at the MU College of Education. "When faculty create products, including syllabi, we can't just release them out for everyone to use and potentially abuse."

About a half-dozen other faculty members in the College of Education contacted for this story would not publicly comment on the matter.

Arthur McKee, managing director of teacher preparation studies for the council, said he found the decision to not release the syllabuses confusing.

"We are talking about syllabi at public universities that are handed out freely," he said. "To suddenly say they are intellectual property is puzzling to us. Where we have no other choice, we will go forward and press our case legally in order to get the documents we need."

McKee said the council has received cooperation from about 80 percent of public institutions. 

The council has also utilized other methods to obtain the syllabuses, such as contacting students to buy them.

"Obviously it's totally up to students as to what they feel about those requests," McKee said. "In our point of view, it's perfectly legitimate activity. Very soon, we will put ads in student newspapers asking students to work with us."

The aggressive techniques have sparked concern over how the syllabuses will be used. 

"They could go directly to the faculty and ask them for the syllabi," Chval said. "I'm not sure why they didn't try that or start there. We are very protective of faculty's work. We want to make sure people's motives are appropriate."

Schwartz said a final decision will be made after consulting academic administrators and faculty.

"We don't have anything to hide," he said.

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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