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Education The Almighty Buck Math

University Reprimands Professor For Assigning Cheaper Textbook ( 363

schwit1 writes: California State University at Fullerton brought a grievance against associate professor Alain Bourget recently. It wasn't for poor results or questionable conduct — it happened because Bourget refused to assign a $180 textbook for his introductory linear algebra and differential equations course, instead using one that cost $75 and supplementing it with free online materials. "Bourget maintains that his choices are just as effective educationally and much less expensive, so he should have the right to use them. But the university says that it makes sense for courses that have multiple sections to all use the same textbooks. Both Bourget and the university say their positions are based on principles of academic freedom."
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University Reprimands Professor For Assigning Cheaper Textbook

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  • The real issue (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Nidi62 ( 1525137 ) on Friday October 30, 2015 @09:46AM (#50831839)
    From TFA:

    The Fullerton text in question is Differential Equations and Linear Algebra, published by Pearson with a suggested price of $196, but available at the Fullerton bookstore for $180 (used editions for much less). The authors are Stephen W. Goode and Scott A. Annin, the chair and vice chair, respectively, of the mathematics department at Fullerton.

    Now it all makes sense.

    • Re:The real issue (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Fire_Wraith ( 1460385 ) on Friday October 30, 2015 @09:48AM (#50831853)
      Yep - as always, cui bono - follow the money.
      • Re:The real issue (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Nidi62 ( 1525137 ) on Friday October 30, 2015 @09:51AM (#50831883)
        I love how the University claims it's clearly not about the chair and vice chair being authors because other universities assign the book as well. I'm sure the mathematics department gave full weight to other textbooks when deciding which book to "recommend" for the course. /sarcasm
    • It looks like "academic freedom" doesn't mean what it used to mean. We live in a truly Orwellian society.
      • It looks like "academic freedom" doesn't mean what it used to mean. We live in a truly Orwellian society.

        Freedom is a prison, brother.

    • There's nothing wrong with this. As they are directing what they view to be necessary for a good mathematics course, it makes sense that they'd use their teaching material.

      • by BVis ( 267028 )

        This assumes that the $180 book is better than the $75 book. If it is superior, then requiring that book over the cheaper version makes sense. However, that is clearly not the criteria here; the criteria is "does this book make the chair and vice-chair money", with no regard for the quality of the text.

      • WTF is with all these apologists? They are making money hand over fist on these materials, materials they created over the course of doing their job, materials which could be distributed for negligible cost.

        They are fucking scumbags.

    • The professor has a solid ethics case against the school fot a clear conflict of interest case. The reprimand could get the school in serious legal trouble.

    • I can't even respect this as an evil scam. The book is published through Pearson-Prentice Hall, which means Goode and Annin are pulling in peanuts in royalties while basically doing all of the dirty work.

      If they weren't lazy bastards, they could have just self-published, charged $50, saved their students money, and still gotten out ahead! But no, that would be almost like real work, and would detract from their precious pontificating time. Typical third-tier academics with their heads up their asses.

    • I knew this already, and wondered why the summarizer failed to mention it.

  • by Errol backfiring ( 1280012 ) on Friday October 30, 2015 @09:49AM (#50831861) Journal
    It seems that some academics want to be more free than others.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 30, 2015 @09:50AM (#50831869)

    I was a professor at a major engineering school, and I got tired of the Institute forcing me to do everything in their prescribed bureaucratic way. Every decision was designed to line someone's pocket. Which textbooks to use, which equipment was required for labs, and even the labs were designed to use sole-source parts from particular vendors (Altera PLDs, for example).

    There is no academic freedom in academia. None whatsoever. So, I quit. I started my own company and have never been happier.

  • by __aaclcg7560 ( 824291 ) on Friday October 30, 2015 @10:04AM (#50831971)

    During the early 1990's, math textbooks started requiring a graphing calculator. Not just any graphing calculator, but a specific model of the Texas Instruments graphing calculator. If you had a different model or brand, you were on your own as the instructors didn't have time to figure out the four or five other graphing calculators in the classroom. Math textbook and graphing calculator cost $200, which was twice the cost of going full time to the community college at the time.

    I went from owning an HP calculator that did Reverse Polish Notation to several models of the TI graphing calculator. I still have them today. Never got around to owning an HP calculator that could take cartridges, say, Missile Command, to extend its functionality. That particular calculator cost $500 or so. More appropriate for the engineering crowd at the university.

    Fortunately, I was very much old school towards learning mathematics. When I showed up for an exam without my graphing calculator, I was able to sketch the graph by hand. Other students who forgot their graphing calculator weren't so lucky, as they couldn't graph their way out of a paper bag. I've known several students who dropped out of school because they couldn't afford the latest and greatest calculator for the newest math textbook. The financial aid office came up with a program to help students with buying calculators.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      I took the standard three course calculus sequence plus differential equations around 1980. Then I took the same four courses again about four years ago. I was very surprised how much more effective the courses were with the addition of the graphing calculator. By using the calculator for some of the grunt work much more realistic problems could be done in class. In particular when attacking triple integrals we would do the first two integrations by hand and then use the calculator to estimate the final

    • The Sharp had one thing none of the others (at that time -- early 80's) did. Playback.

      You entered in up to 50 "button pushes" of whatever, and hit =. To check you entered it all, you hit PB (playback) and you could then scroll through every bit of it. It also had 6 memory locations you could draw from. The others in its price range had 2.

      No other calculator came close (at that time), even at 3 times the money. [I guess they are up to 142 steps [] now.]

      Fond, fond memories of that product. From sharp
  • The professor is teaching one section of a class where different sections are taught by different faculty. As all the students - regardless of which section they are enrolled in - are enrolled in the same course, they should all be studying the same material. While it is not impossible to ensure that this happens when different sections use different texts, it is a lot easier to ensure that this happens when everyone does use the same text.

    I say the professor should have brought up his concerns with the text book earlier; although working in academia I suspect he may have himself been assigned to teach that section without enough time to do so.

    In other words, there is blame to go around.
    • by chill ( 34294 ) on Friday October 30, 2015 @10:14AM (#50832067) Journal

      Well, considering the department chair and vice-chair are the co-authors of the book, I don't think he would have gotten much traction.

      How much does Linear Algebra change from year to year? Is there a real reason -- other than milking students (aka Federal Student Loan money) -- of not using a textbook from say, 2006, which is plentiful and under $10 on the used book market? Has there been a revolution in either the fundamental mathematical theory or the teaching of such to require new, "revised" editions of the text that are 10-20x more expensive?

      • by arglebargle_xiv ( 2212710 ) on Friday October 30, 2015 @10:59AM (#50832459)

        How much does Linear Algebra change from year to year?

        That's what amazes me about the $180 text the rent-seekers are forcing him to use, it's in what, its fourth edition now? The only reason for new editions is to kill the second-hand book market.

        The best book on calculus I've ever encountered, beating any modern prescribed text by a country mile in terms of how it explains things, is Sylvanus Thompson's "Calculus Made Easy". I own a relatively recent copy, dating from the 1940s. The original was published over a century ago. The author was born when there were 30 US states, before the Crimean War. The book is a vast improvement over any of its successors.

    • by cdrudge ( 68377 )

      It's going to be horrible for those kids that learned from the "alternate" linear algebra course when they get out in the real world. Employers are going to expect students to have learned the Fullerton's Linear Algebra and not some other linear algebra. Even later courses those poor students are going to struggle.

    • by godrik ( 1287354 )

      That is not how it should work. Here, each course is associated with a particular set of concepts and the instructor is reponsible for teaching these concepts. When I teach a course the department recommends me a text book, but I can do whatever I want.

      If you want a course that uses this book, this set of slides, and this set of assignment, get an f-ing parrot; I have better things to do.

  • RTFA for once (Score:5, Interesting)

    by argStyopa ( 232550 ) on Friday October 30, 2015 @10:08AM (#50832005) Journal

    ....and in the comments section it mentions that the department started using this book in 1989, 15 years before the author became department chair.

    Also, it mentions that the course-approved book rents for much less than the rebel-chosen book.

    So obviously there's more to the story than the simple venal corruption that's implied.
    - it seems a conflict of interest when a department is *requiring* the use of a book from which the department head(s) directly profit; then again, if my department is using book X, and we can "get" as a professor the author of said book, I'd do it for sure.
    - it also seems pretty reasonable that a department would agree to teach from a consistent set of books, especially for lower-level courses, so as to provide a consistent contextual base for all students in later classes; do they do so in other departments?

    I don't have any answers to resolve this, frankly.

    • Also, it mentions that the course-approved book rents for much less than the rebel-chosen book.

      Of course it does. Publishers want to move to a model where you don't actually own anything. They can make more money that way.

      In the context of this discussion, I agree with the department in that all sections of a course like this should all use the same textbook. I disagree with the department (as does the professor) that the textbook should be so expensive especially in a subject that has not really changed in years, decades, heck, even centuries.

    • The author was at the institution since at least 1986. So he wrote the text while teaching there before becoming department chair, and the department adopted it. There wasn't the idea of "getting" (hiring) someone who has had written a book they happened to like. More likely, he'd been teaching the course, got his notes published as a book, they weren't more terrible than any of the other dozens of weak linear algebra texts, and they fit that particular course well, so his colleagues said it was OK to

  • Seriously - there's no current events that impact how we do linear algebra and diff equations, nor have the concepts changed in hundreds of years. So why the hell aren't we using public domain textbooks?! Well, we all know why, but how do we go about changing the money grab?
  • by call -151 ( 230520 ) * on Friday October 30, 2015 @10:14AM (#50832069) Homepage

    A professor assigning a textbook that he or she wrote happens fairly often as people tend to write texts for courses that they teach often, and tend to write texts when they are not happy with what options are already out there, and they generally think that they cover things in the best way possible, since they wrote it. Often a text evolves from course notes and is shopped around to various publishers, one of which is happy to accept it and polish it up and charge extortionate prices for it. If it gets adopted on its own merits at other institutions, great for the publisher and author.

    But there is an obvious conflict of interest when a faculty member requires a text that he or she wrote for a course at the home institution, as the author/instructor gets some of the money (not much, though, even for a $180 text, I'm afraid.) At a normal university with standards and ethics, there generally is a mechanism for making textbook adoption decisions revenue-neutral for the instructor. I know of places where the part of the proceeds from the sale at the home institution of the author is sent directly from the publisher to something like the department colloquium fund, or sometimes if the publisher can't cope with the complexity, the author just donates the apportioned proceeds from sales at the home institution to a student support fund or tutoring lab or something like that.

    Apparently, in this department, there is no such mechanism for the revenue (or the authors are not worried about the conflict of interest) and the authors apparently do get money from the text being required at their own institution. It is easy to see how another faculty member, now tenured, can feel that it is unfair for the text to be required, if the text isn't that great (most aren't) and if the money is going to his or her department members despite the fact that it is not the best value book. When the people profiting in question are part of the department administration (chair, assistant chair) that makes resistance more difficult, as department staff can retaliate in various obvious and subtle ways and there can be pressure to comply with unethical practices.

    At a normal university, there would be conflict-of-interest policies that apply and would probably prevent a department from forming a policy to require a course purchase which benefits a faculty member financially. At Cal State Fullerton, either there aren't any strong policies, or they are being ignored, apparently. The instructor who is not following this unethical policy does have tenure (his wife is also tenured in the same department) so though he can't be readily dismissed or denied tenure, but still because the people who are financially impacted by this make decisions which can affect him and his wife, this is big headache.

      There has been support from faculty in other departments which is a good sign but the fact that it got this far is one sign of an unhappy dysfunctional math department. There are hundreds of commodity linear algebra and differential equations textbooks out there, with lots of different approaches. Most of them are terrible, but there are enough good ones that this kerfluffle seems pretty ridiculous.

    • If they get no significant kick back from a 180$ book why even publish it at a publisher? Have it printed and bound locally.

      But of course they do ...

      • That sounds easier to do that it probably is; I'm not sure about Pearson but almost every publisher has exclusivity requirements and it would stun me if Pearson didn't have something like that as they have been doing this for a long time.. Once the publisher typesets and prettifies your course notes, they have the exclusive right to distribute them, etc. Unless that was negotiated at the outset (and it would take someone with some integrity to do that) it is unlikely to be feasible now. The easiest thing

        • by snsh ( 968808 )

          One of my graduate TA's did just that, 30 years ago. He compiled notes and study guides made by himself and other TA's, imported them into TeX, invented a publisher, hired a printer, and sold thousands of books. The hardest part was writing the book, not publishing and printing it. And this was all in the early 1990's, before the Internet made its way outside academia. Today, publishing and printing is even easier than it was at that time.

    • not much, though, even for a $180 text

      In this case the $180 reflects the number of courses the book applies to, and thus the amount of lock-in. If the exact same book wasn't mandated for so many courses, it would cost less, despite consisting of the same materials.

    • But there is an obvious conflict of interest when a faculty member requires a text that he or she wrote for a course at the home institution, as the author/instructor gets some of the money (not much, though, even for a $180 text, I'm afraid.) At a normal university with standards and ethics, there generally is a mechanism for making textbook adoption decisions revenue-neutral for the instructor.

      Supposedly the department has been using that book for years. In fact, the department was using that book for 15 years before the author even worked for the school. See the comment from argStyopa []. If they were already using the book, it doesn't sound like the author of the book had any influence in it's adoption once he became a faculty member.

      • Even if the author was not the chair at the time of the adoption, a tenured faculty member will vote on an untenured faculty member's tenure decision and this power imbalance is routinely exploited every day on campuses across the country. My guess is that the faculty member in question had objections to the text but did not say anything until after he (and his wife) had tenure and was less vulnerable. He is still vulnerable (may eventually want promotion from Associate Professor to Professor, may not wan

      • ps. The author Goode has been at CSU-Fullerton since at least 1986 according to his profile at mathscinet []. His most recent research publication was 1995. The author Annin has been there since 2005 and perhaps he became a co-author in one of the updated versions. It is not uncommon for a senior faculty member to get a junior one to help update an older text, and publishers like it when there are new editions as it kills the used book market for a while.

  • by Pseudonymous Powers ( 4097097 ) on Friday October 30, 2015 @10:14AM (#50832071)

    While 75 dollars is a significant savings over 180, why stop there? I just did a search on "linear algebra" on Google Shopping, and I can see three books from Dover Publications in there, with a combined cost of $33.18. While I'm sure they're terrible at explaining linear algebra to someone who doesn't already know linear algebra, I'm equally sure that the 75 and 180 dollar versions are terrible as well. I'd rather have three concise terrible math books books plus 40-150 dollars than one really heavy terrible math book.

  • This really is plain insanity. The cost of a university education is well out of control, and textbooks aren't helping.

    While I agree that having the same coursebook over a whole section (i.e. All Math 101 classes use the same book, which hopefully Math 201 also use..) I do believe that our educators should have a hand in which textbook is selected. Unless the group deciding what textbook is used, teach from said textbook, they need to take a backseat and listen to the people on the front lines. Cost is o

    • If only there were some mechanism of disseminating and copying course materials that was virtually free and used equipment that everyone attending college can afford.

  • by BenJeremy ( 181303 ) on Friday October 30, 2015 @10:25AM (#50832173)

    Create a "Credit Union" version of the University - open sourced books, leverage videos, implement real world methodologies into projects, and foster ethical and professional behavior across all disciplines. Drive to create a true non-profit organization centered on delivering actual education and value back to the middle class students who need that accredited degree to get their foot int he door professionally.

    Our President and business leaders talks a good game about promoting STEM and education in this country, but won't do anything to overhaul the terrible system that is our college system. Make it affordable, practical, and worthwhile.

    Of course, the same could be said about our health care system, too.

  • I am OK with DRM on Tailor Swift songs and proprietory word processors. But copyrighted mathematics? Seriously? Claiming exclusive right to facts and laws of nature?

  • I see many comments saying something along the lines of department chairs / professors "lining their pockets" by requiring books that they wrote.

    While it very well may be an ego thing, it is definitely NOT a money thing. My wife has written many collegiate level textbooks and they are used at many different schools. She netted a whopping $600 in royalties for 2014. The authors are not getting rich on sales of textbooks. Their salaries dwarf what they earn for publications.

    Next conspiracy theory ...

    • by Nidi62 ( 1525137 )
      They might not get rich off the textbook sales, but what are the net effects of writing a textbook and getting widespread adoption on your career? Better advancement opportunities, better pay, make you more competitive for positions at more prestigious universities, etc?
  • While I'd like to support the guy that's trying to save his students some money, his colleague & supporter Hassan is nuts, and making his position sound irrational: "If the university thinks you are good enough to teach the course, they should let you pick the materials," he said.

    A world full of "We can do whatever the hell we want", is not a place I'd want to live. I would be furious if semesters 1, 2 & 3 of a course each required a DIFFERENT BOOK, instead of using the same one. Perhaps all three

    • by Nidi62 ( 1525137 )

      I would be furious if semesters 1, 2 & 3 of a course each required a DIFFERENT BOOK, instead of using the same one. Perhaps all three books having been written by each professor... Perhaps all three costing $180 a piece!

      Pass the class the first time and you won't have to take 2 more semesters of it

  • Larson: $279 []

    Poole: $274 []

    Williams: $206 []

    By contrast:

    Strang: $66
    (Intro to Linear Algebra, 4e, 2009) []

    But also:

    Strang: $322
    (Linear Algebra and its Applications, 4e, 2005) []

    Of course what makes this racket even worse, there's been nothing new in the field of Linear Algebra for over 100 years. A textbook written in 1915 would be just as usable as one writ

  • They had the assigned textbook, and a list of suggested textbooks. Either way, the instructor assigned their own problems, usually a mix from the instructor's manual and of their own creation. In the case of readings, they gave the topic and (in the case of the assigned textbook) section numbers for the current and prior editions. The student was by no means obligated to buy the assigned or recommended textbooks. They could use a book of their own choosing, online resources, or simply rely upon lectures

  • by aussersterne ( 212916 ) on Friday October 30, 2015 @03:24PM (#50834835) Homepage

    I'll preface this by saying that I was not tenured faculty. But I was adjunct faculty with a thriving career outside of the university and seven years as a part-time faculty member.

    This happened to me at local State U (I'm in a flyover state) and ended my years as a professor. I was a top-rated instructor in the department by both student evaluations and faculty observations, advising graduate students, experienced, and had been there a long time teaching courses that I developed and that were well-received.

    New leadership came in at the divisional level, and I was called in to a meeting with my chair one day. I was told I could no longer do what I had been doing for at least half a decade: assigning a textbook that was several editions old (there were no substantive changes in the newer editions, just replaced photos) and instructing students on the syllabus to pick the books up for literally pennies on, Alibris, eBay, or other online venues.

    Instead, I had to assign the latest issue of the textbook and do it only through the university bookstore, at a cost of >$150.00 in one class, >$200.00 in another (compared to an average of $4.00 plus shipping most semesters for the online used versions). I had it listed as my first assignment on each syllabus—buy a used textbook online and submit proof of purchase (to be sure the students actually did get ahold of the textbooks).

    I refused. I said I would provide both options—I'd order the textbook through the university bookstore and provide that as an option to students that preferred to buy new, through the bookstore, but would also allow both current and old editions to be used in my classes for students that wanted to rely on used books. I was threatened again. New only, bookstore only.

    I refused. I was fired.

    That semester (in 2014) was the last time I set foot on a college campus as a professor, after nearly a decade in the classroom every semester. Again, I wasn't tenured—but it left a significant hole in curriculum and advising. They were more interested in ensuring that students contributed to revenue and partnerships through bookstore purchases than they were in actually enabling students to learn in a cost-effective way.

You know, Callahan's is a peaceable bar, but if you ask that dog what his favorite formatter is, and he says "roff! roff!", well, I'll just have to...