Monday, October 26, 2015
Siding With the Villain
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.
Regardless of who wrote it, a textbook for differential equations and linear algebra should not cost $195. Brill, Ashgate, Brepols, and other academic publishers assure us that their monographs cost $120, $150, $200, and more because they publish scholarship that has a very limited audience, and they have fixed costs to cover, so the price has to be set high. I don't always think they're right, but they do have a point. They publish books that sell a few hundred copies at $150, and they're clearly profitable. Now take a linear algebra textbook. It will sell tens of thousands of copies, if not more. Mathematical typesetting is cheap these days. Textbooks are not made to last a long time. The obvious conclusion is that, if Brill can make a profit selling 500 copies of a $195 book, a company that sells 50,000 copies of a $195 book is price gouging, and that's easier for them if they have a captive market.
Books aren't that expensive to produce. I took linear algebra in 1985 and paid $25 for my textbook. Based on the CPI increase from 1985 to 2015, that would be $55 in today's dollars. Linear algebra at the college level has not changed significantly in the last 30 years. If publishers were interested in serving the interests of students, they wouldn't produce new editions every three years. Such "revisions" seem to be intended to make using earlier editions a hassle, and thus to undercut the used book market, rather than to reflect advances in the field.
So yes, I agree with your general principle, but in this case, the circumstances seem so abusive that I think this is a clear exception. If the CSU Fullerton faculty were being reasonable, they would evaluate the evidence and decide that their current policy was outdated and needed to be revised. However, that might be hard if it involved crossing their chair and vice chair. If CSU Fullerton had offered their students a royalty-free price for the textbook, on the grounds that it was the best book for the course but since their tuition was already paying the authors' salaries, it would be unseemly for the authors to also collect royalties, they would have a much better case.
I fully recognize the need for uniformity in classes that have multiple sections. All of the sections should conform to the description in the course catalog, they should all have the same syllabus, they should all cover the same material, and they should all use the same textbook. This is especially important if the class is a prerequisite for more advanced courses in the curriculum, where mastery of the material covered in the introductory courses is important for success in the advanced courses. It is important that we don’t have an individual instructor in a multiple-section course going rogue, covering their own specially-favored material rather than the material called for in the catalogue description of the course. Even the AAUP recognizes the need for uniformity in multiple-section courses.
I remember in graduate school that a tenured professor had absolute freedom to do anything they pleased in teaching their class. They could teach anything they wanted to, even if it deviated significantly from the course description in the catalog. I remember hearing that one professor who was teaching an introductory course in quantum mechanics, saying on the first day: “I am not going to teach you quantum mechanics, I am going to teach you the quark model.” But there was only one section of the class. Nevertheless, students who enrolled in the class hoping to learn about quantum mechanics must have been sorely disappointed.
But the math textbook in the CSU-Fullerton case raises some serious conflict-of-interest issues, since it was written by the department chair and vice-chair and was super-expensive. Did the department as a whole have some say in what textbook was to be used, or was it strictly up to the department chair, who had a financial interest in the choice? Back when I was teaching at Research Intensive Technical Institute, as a lowly assistant professor I don’t remember having any say in what textbooks were to be used, the decision being made by the department chair and assistant chair, or by the tenured faculty members.
But in those days textbook prices were not super-expensive. Back when I was an undergraduate, a math textbook often costed less than $10. Nowadays, a textbook can cost $200 or more. There is often the possibility of going to the used-book market and getting a copy of the assigned textbook for a significantly lower price, but it seems that there is a new edition of the text put out just about every year, usually with only minimal changes such as a renumbering of the problems, a reshuffling of the chapters, or the addition of some extra graphical material. This is done primarily to beat the used-book market. The whole textbook game has become a huge racket, designed to benefit some of the more predatory textbook publishers.
Greater attention must be made at the departmental level to address this textbook cost issue. One possibility is to choose an open-access textbook, which can be obtained for a much lower cost or even for free. Another possibility is for the department members to write their own textbook and offer it to the students for only the cost of reproduction, or to make it available online for free.
In 1987 (or thereabouts) the institution at which I was teaching decided to move from anarchy in the selection of an intro econ textbook to a unified adoption. Two of us (as it happens the two junior, and untenured faculty) were asked to make a recommendation. The econ faculty agreed on a set of criteria to evaluate intro texts, we applied them, and made a recommendation. The senior faculty said no, we don't like that book, we're going to continue to use the books we've always used (which were, in my opinion, not very good, but that's a different issue). Our dean did not say to them, look, we agreed on a unified adoption. You don't like their choice, so you pick one. He shrugged his shoulders and the issue was dropped.
After all this time, it still rankles (can you tell)?
Later on, following a lot of turnover (so I was the only econ person remaining from that debacle), we were still in a state of anarchy. And a new faculty member selected his books. And what he did was terminally stupid. Intro econ books can come in "splits"--micro econ and macro econ. He chose books by different authors--but he assigned the combined micro/macro hardcover editions, not the paperback splits. I suggested to the dean that she (obviously a different dean) suggest to him that he should reconsider that. She did not.
So there are many ways to screw students over in the selection of textbooks...