Monday, October 26, 2015

Siding With the Villain

Clark Kerr famously quipped that university faculties are loose groupings of independent experts, united only by a shared grievance over parking.  As with the best hyperbole, it captured something real.  As anyone in academic administration can attest, there’s a constant, structural tension between the need for faculty autonomy and the need for institutional consistency.  

That tension, I think, is at the root of the story that emerged this week about the conflict over a math textbook at CSU-Fullerton.  The story itself combines several issues.  First, the department assigned a common textbook for every section of a class, regardless of who taught it.  Second, the required text was expensive.  Third, the required text was written by the department chair and vice chair.  Fourth, a professor who broke the rule about a common text assigned a combination that was much cheaper.

So the CSU case combines autonomy/consistency, cost, and conflict of interest.  Unfortunately, it’s easy to conflate the three, and therefore to sacrifice a larger point to a sticky case.  For example, what if the renegade professor had assigned a book that was more expensive?  Or that he had written himself?  I’d hate to base a general policy on the contingencies of a single case.

I’ll focus on the first issue, since it strikes me as the most common and the most important.  Should departments be allowed to determine, and enforce, common texts across every section of a class?


I say that not only because the AAUP agrees with it, although it does.  I say that because at the end of the day, credits are granted not by faculty, but by institutions.  Institutions determine the title, the goals, the credits, the day, the time, the location, and the duration of classes.  If a professor decides that she doesn’t like a given timeslot, she is not free to simply change it on her own.  Students plan on it, room conflicts are real, and for security reasons the college needs to know who is teaching where, and when.  

The interest in institutional coherence isn’t limited to logistics.  If a professor is hired to teach, say, digital circuits, and instead spends every class period discussing her family vacations, then she is not doing her job.  “Academic freedom” is not absolute, nor is it entirely individual.  Saying that “the faculty” controls curriculum is different from saying that each individual professor does.  Collapsing the first into the second actually destroys both.

I’ve seen conflicts like this at previous colleges.  A math sequence is built on the assumption that fractions are covered in the first class.  But a professor in the first class thinks that students struggle too much with fractions, so he decides unilaterally not to cover them, leaving it for the next class in the sequence.  The professor teaching the next class doesn’t know that, and proceeds on the assumption that students were taught something that they weren’t actually taught.  Students fall through the cracks, and a collectively-determined curriculum is jeopardized.  The first professor’s disregard of a collectively-determined objective created a problem for the second professor, as well as the students. This is not okay.

In the CSU case, my objection is not that the department chose to assign a common book.  It was within its rights to do so.  My objections are that it chose without apparent regard to cost or to a conflict of interest.  (I say “apparent” because I wasn’t there.)  It chose badly, which is fair game for criticism, but it was within its rights to choose.

Historically, one reason for assigning common texts was actually to reduce textbook costs.  When a common text is assigned, and held for multiple years, then a healthy market in used books can develop.  Students can save significantly with used books, as opposed to new.  When each professor assigns different books, the market for any given book becomes too small.  But when, say, a Psych department picks a common text for the Intro class, the volume is high enough to sustain buybacks and resales.

The IHE piece situates the issue within the larger questions of OER, which is exactly my concern.  For a college to be able to put together an entirely OER degree program, every class in the program has to use OER.  That means every professor teaching those classes.  If someone decides to go rogue and assign something commercial, the students will rightly complain about being misled.  And when financial aid awards are based on estimated costs, a professor who unilaterally decides to impose substantial new costs does significant harm.  Siding with the rogue in a sympathetic case would suggest a rule that would effectively forbid a much greater good.

Theoretically, of course, unanimity would smooth the tension between autonomy and consistency.  But unanimity is both rare and fleeting.  As a standard, it gives undue power to a single dissenter.   If you want a rule to hold up over time, you need to be willing and able to enforce it.  There’s a reason that democracies don’t rely on unanimity, or allow citizens to cherry-pick the laws they’ll choose to follow.  If they did, they’d essentially hollow out the point of majority rule.

I’m no fan of the choices the CSU department made,  I agree that there’s a serious ethical issue around the conflict of interest, and that textbook cost deserves more attention than it gets.  The department seems to have gone out of its way to make itself the villain.  But siding with a sympathetic rogue here would lose the larger cause.