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Publishing textbooks can mean big money for professors

Professors assign texts they've written, students wonder if it's ethical

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When she was a freshman, Emily Malkowski, a sophomore communication major, didn’t find it unusual to pay her professor $40 in cash for her statistics textbooks.

Now, a year later, she wonders if the professor, Dietrich Kuhlmann, a research professor of biostatistics, was making a profit off her or was doing something unethical by selling her his book directly rather than through a major publishing house.

Jayne O’Connor, a law student, also took STA 119 with Kuhlmann when she was a sophomore undergraduate. She said it felt strange to pay Kuhlmann in cash.

“It just felt sketchy,” O’Connor said. “It felt like he was using the class as an opportunity to make money for himself ... All the people I was in the class with thought it was a weird thing. We all felt it wasn’t the right way to go about it.”

Kuhlmann is the only professor for the course. This semester there are 723 students enrolled in it. At $40 per student, he collected nearly $30,000 in cash.

Malkowski now questions if Kuhlmann was “producing [the books] himself, and then up-charging them to make a profit.”

Other students at UB are asking similar question about their professors who assign textbooks they’ve written.

UB has no regulations about professors assigning their own textbooks, nor does the university have any written rules about professors accepting cash from students for self-published books. This lack of policy leaves students wondering whose wallet their money is going into.

At the University of Minnesota, Southern Utah University and Cleveland State University, a faculty committee must approve if a professor can use his or her own text. North Dakota State University and the University of North Texas caution professors against making money off the sales of their texts to their students unless the text is “independently accepted” in its field.

Elaine Cusker, the associate dean for academic affairs and undergraduate education, said in an email at UB “courses are proposed and approved with descriptions and expected student learning outcomes, faculty are generally then free to choose the most appropriate instructional materials.”

There are no published statistics as to how many professors at UB are using their own textbooks, but The Spectrum knows of at least three other professors – Brian Reynolds, adjunct assistant professor and the sole professor of COM 101, Richard Almon, professor of biological sciences and adjunct professor of pharmaceutics and Donald McGuire, the undergraduate programs administrator and an adjunct associate professor of classics – who write and assign texts they’ve published.

Almon and his wife Debra Dubois, a research scientist and research associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences and biological sciences, co-wrote their textbook for BIO 129.

Sometimes, these self-created textbooks can cost more than $100 dollars each.

“I understand that college is ultimately a business and that teachers need to make a living too, I don’t think it’s right for them to be making a living off of students,” said Thomas Retter*, a student taking McGuire’s first-semester World Civilizations class.

McGuire has his 422 World Civ students purchase his $120 online textbook.

These students’ questions come at a time when college students across the country have been complaining about the high cost of textbooks, which, on average, run $1,200 a year, according to the consumer advocacy group U.S. PIRG.

Universities, professors and university bookstores have responded to the national outcry by creating innovative ways students can get books at a cheaper cost. This includes forgoing textbooks all together, renting textbooks to students, using online texts or using websites like Chegg.com, a popular textbook rental site, which offers textbooks at up to 90 percent off the list price.

In a February paper called “Fix the Broken Textbook Market,” U.S. PIRG found that 48 percent of 2,000 students interviewed said the cost of textbooks affected which classes they took in a semester.

UB students are also struggling paying for pricey textbooks. UB students pay $1,164 each year for books and supplies, according to the Undergraduate Cost of Attendance.

Many UB students find it improper for professors to create textbooks on their own and make them required reading. Students wonder if their professors’ self-published books are worth the price they’re paying.

Keeping on the up and up

The absence of textbook regulation from UB and SUNY allows professors to exercise their right to academic freedom, but also leaves them open to assign whatever textbook they want – including their own.

The rise of the Internet has changed the process for publishing. In past decades, professors needed to go through major publishing houses, where their work was edited and peer-reviewed before being sold to the general public, including students.

Now professors can upload what they want and set the prices for their students.

Cusker said it is “very appropriate” for faculty members who are experts in the field to use their own texts in class because it helps students get the best education possible.

“Many of our faculty are the experts in their field and their published works represent the authoritative source,” Cusker said. “That is indeed one of the benefits of attending a research university. UB is proud of its faculty scholarship and especially when that results in publications.”

Cusker did not answer The Spectrum’s queries about professors taking cash directly from students for self-published texts by the time of press.

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) pointed out the trend of professors appearing to profit from textbook sales to their students in November 2004. But AAUP did not offer guidelines for professors or universities to follow.

AAUP said it is necessary to ensure that any policy regarding professors assigning their own texts protects students from exploitation but also gives professors academic freedom.

“Professors, individually and collectively, have the primary responsibility for the teaching done at their institutions,” AAUP said. “Accordingly, their voice on matters having to do with the selection of course materials should be determinative.”

Still, students like Retter don’t see why a professor is allowed to charge students for an e-book that mostly consists of specific research done by the instructor.

“I understand that this is to an extent his research on the website, but I don’t think your research is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Retter said.

While students may be torn about what a professor’s work is worth – especially if it is required reading – professors can see the benefits in their colleagues assigning texts they’ve written.

By tailor-writing a textbook to a course and assigning it, under certain conditions, said Kenneth Shockley, an associate professor of philosophy, the text can provide a “great added value” because students won’t get a “cookie cutter education.”

But professors should assign their texts only if they follow certain criteria: if their texts are the best option, if the text is comparatively inexpensive or the quality of the text justifies the expense and if the professors assigning the texts are not motivated entirely by financial gain, Shockley said.

If a professor does not go through a publishing house, the “burden of proof” as to why he/she assigned his/her book is much higher, Shockley said. There is no third party oversight if a professor sells a self-published text directly to students.

He said professors who sell a textbook directly to students may have “perverse incentive” to use that text when there is a better option – and nobody is there to check on that.

For Steven Brown, an associate professor in the law school, compiling one’s own textbook or materials for a course is just part of being an academic.

While Brown uploads the thousands of documents he’s compiled over the years for students in his law courses for free, he said he understands why a professor would charge for producing a “polished set of materials.”

“I know how much time goes into it; I know how much work you have to do beyond your normal workload [to produce a textbook],” Brown said. “I can understand where they’re coming from. I could just compile these materials and I can say, ‘Here you go,’ or I can be devoting a lot more attention to putting together a polished set of materials. I don’t receive anything additional for going above and beyond what’s required.”

Still Brown said that it can appear a professor is profiting from students if he/she assigns his/her own textbook.

If a professor’s textbook is published and available to other schools, Bill Adamczyk, course materials manager of the Follett University Bookstore on North Campus said, then the material must be “that good” to be widely regarded in the professor’s field. He doesn’t see a problem with professors using their own textbooks, in that case.

Neither McGuire’s nor Kuhlmann’s books are sold in other schools.

Adamczyk is concerned that students who rely on financial aid cannot afford to buy books directly from a professor. Financial aid and scholarships only cover books and materials purchased through the bookstore, Adamczyk said.

While Kuhlmann and McGuire said they provide options for students with financial concerns, students still only have one place to buy the book and only one price to pay. Without renting options or cheaper e-text versions, students do not have the same flexibility of searching for cheaper versions as they do in other classes.

Cash in hand

Kuhlmann charges $40 for the three required texts he has written for the course. Students pay him directly in cash – something many find strange.

“I didn’t really mind it [at the time], but I did find it odd,” Malkowski said. “Personally, I was a freshman at the time and was still figuring out what was considered ‘normal’ in the college setting … I’m sure others are probably in the same boat.”

Kuhlmann said the cost to produce his textbooks was close to what the students are charged. He asks his independent publishing company to print a few extra copies and gives those copies, for free, to teaching assistants and students with financial concerns. The price ends up being $40 per bundle.

Kuhlmann said he makes no money off the books sold.

Kuhlmann said he chose to go through an independent publishing house and take cash directly from students to avoid the mark-up the University Bookstore would impose on his texts.

There is no publisher information on Kuhlmann’s books.

He could go through the bookstore, if it would make students feel better about the whole process, he said.

Still, students like Brianna Hildreth, a sophomore nursing major, question why they had to pay cash for Kuhlman’s book at all.

Kuhlmann is the only professor who teaches STA 119 and with 723 students, his books are bringing in $28,290 – in cash – this semester. It’s a number that makes Hildreth wary.

"Some teachers put their notes online free,” she said. “Why did we have to buy his?”

Each student receives two textbooks upfront and, a few weeks into the semester, the students have to go to his office hours to pick up their third book – a deal that Hildreth didn’t like. She said she thought students should’ve received all three “on the spot” when they paid in cash.

Some students in Kuhlmann’s STA 119 classes don’t mind shelling out $40 for his books.

“I was happy to pay [Kuhlmann] $40 for a textbook I’ll use every page of, rather than pay $100 to $200 for a textbook I’d use for a couple homework assignments,” said Martin Gartz, a junior theater performance major. “Plus, it’s his textbook, so he followed it religiously, which made the class easier.”

Michele Goldhirsch, a sophomore business and accounting major, said it was “a bit weird” to pay Kuhlmann directly, but it made it easier than searching for the cheapest version of the book online.

Hildreth said although people were annoyed at having to give Kuhlmann cash, “because it seems really sketchy for a teacher to be asking students for cash for textbooks they wrote themselves,” students in the class were OK with it because the books were cheap and fit the class “perfectly.”

Kuhlmann decided to write his own textbook for STA 119 due to the difficulties of teaching with other textbooks, he said.

“The [statistics] books are so overwhelming,” Kuhlmann said. “It’s so much easier to teach when [students are] looking at what you want them to look at.

A not-so-general education

McGuire’s textbook, Why World History?, an e-text available through Great River Technologies (GRT), costs each student $120.

If students do not purchase the text, they immediately lose 15 percent of their grade because participating in the discussion boards is required. Students also complete assignments, quizzes and tests on the website.

Retter said although the textbook goes along with McGuire’s lectures and makes the course easy to understand, he was frustrated that he couldn’t keep the expensive text once the course ended.

The text is online and each student needs a code to access it. There are no PDF files available to download. When the semester ends, the text is gone.

The $120 cost per student reflects the “seven figure” cost needed to “develop the content delivery engine plus constant reinvestment to make enhancements,” according to Keith Kropp, national sales manager of GRT.

Neither Kropp nor McGuire would disclose what the “seven figure” cost to develop the book was. Kropp said it can take a year or two of sales to “break even.”

“I can assure you that most authors, including authors of traditional textbooks, are not getting rich,” Kropp said in an email. “In fact, there are many authors who don’t take royalties at all. I’ve heard many people laugh when comparing the number of hours they put into a project and their financial compensation. Many people would say it’s worse than minimum wage.”

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) found that in 2013, although workers under age 25 comprised only one-fifth of all hourly-paid workers, those young workers made up half of those making federal minimum wage ($7.25) or less.

There are currently a combined 422 students in McGuire’s two UGC 111 sections, which means McGuire’s textbook is raking in $50,640 this semester alone.

This is the first semester students are purchasing and using McGuire’s book.

Neither McGuire nor Kropp would comment on how much each text sold makes in royalties for either GRT or McGuire.

The cost of the text must cover the cost of borrowing content, using art or other images, interactive and animated elements, the development team, the cost of enhancing the publication, hosting the publication, the overall design of the product and support costs, Kropp said.

“Many traditional publishers still develop textbooks that are 900-pages, static, and expensive,” Kropp said in an email. “There are a number of world history textbooks that cost close-to or over $200 … Students that purchase access the publication directly through GRT avoid the large markup imposed by many college bookstores.”

McGuire’s textbook is listed at $120 on the bookstore’s website – the same fee charged directly by GRT.

This semester, World Civ textbook prices vary from $24 for the cheapest class to $242.25 for the most expensive, if a student purchases all new printed books.

The single most expensive textbook, World Civilizations Vol. 1 by Philip J. Adler and Randall L. Pouwels, is assigned in a section taught by Christine Varnado, a visiting assistant professor of transnational studies. It costs $195, but students have the option to rent the book digitally for 180 days for only $57.99 – just under half the cost of McGuire’s e-text.

“If I really wanted to I could’ve made his website on Wix (a free website builder) for him, saved him the trouble of contracting a firm and money,” Retter said.

Adamczyk said $120 for an e-text or for a World Civ book is not uncommon.

“I certainly don’t feel like I’m profiting off the textbook significantly,” McGuire said.

Like Kuhlmann, McGuire chose to write a textbook for World Civ – a university-wide required course for general education – after feeling unsatisfied with the other material available.

“There’s always things to teach around [in other textbooks],” McGuire said. “Either they’re giving so much information that students don’t know what to do with it or we disagree philosophically with other cultures around the world and they trivialize it. It’s always been an impediment.”

Putting money back in students’ pockets

It has never occurred to Brown to charge students for the thousands of documents he uploads to the Internet each semester.

Brown and Shockley said they recognize that the financial burden on students is high.

“It’s a matter of a few hours of deciding what I want to upload,” Brown said. “It’s something I’m doing anyway.”

Once, a student printed out all the documents Brown uploaded and put them in a massive binder.

“My students coming through right now are incurring a lot of debt,” Brown said. “They’re looking at a market that’s a lot tighter than when I came out of law school. I don’t need the $50 or $25 as much as they might.”

Ian Ayres, the William K. Townsend professor at Yale law school, the Anne Urowsky Professorial Fellow in Law and a professor in Yale’s school of management, wrote in a New York Times op-Ed in 2009 that “Instead of just trying to get the best book for my class (and to do so I should weigh both quality and price), I might also consider assigning my own book and increasing my profit. This is a self-dealing transaction, which would be presumptively illegal if professors owed a fiduciary duty to students.”

Ayres assigns his own contracts casebook to his students to reduce the “financial conflict of interest that professors have in assigning their own books.” Ayres decided to give $11 back to each of his students who purchased the book – the amount he made in royalties from each book sold.

“So students, if your professor has asked you to buy his or her book, ask for a rebate,” Ayres wrote in the blog, Freakonomics. “A small way to make professors more sensitive about the price of books they are assigning is to think about the royalties they are generating for themselves.”

Out in the open

Some professors do not think UB should create a universal policy requiring professors to justify their textbook choices.

Shockley thinks it would be “problematic” to force professors to justify their choices and rather, students, faculty, administration or other interested parties should raise concerns “on a case-by-case basis” about this practice.

“It does strike me as something that would be disconcerting to some professors [to have to justify their choices], so I’m not sure how I feel about whether or not [creating a policy] could be done without costing some political capital in those negotiations,” Brown said.

But Brown said that if UB feels strongly about the practice, it could issue guidelines to “avoid the appearance of impropriety.”

Adamczyk supports a university-wide policy about selling directly or assigning one’s own textbook to students.

A university-wide policy would provide oversight on professors using their own textbooks.

“I feel like it would be good if [UB] could limit the profit margin if the professor is going to use their own book,” O’Connor said. “They’re publishing their own books; they’re making money on it. They shouldn’t use it as an excuse to price-gouge the students.”

If students know their professors are abiding by university guidelines, it may help them understand why a professor would write and assign his or her own text.

New Jersey, Connecticut and Washington bar professors from using their office to make monetary gains. New Jersey professors must donate their royalties either to the school they work at or another non-profit institution.

At the University of Minnesota, Southern Utah University and Cleveland State University, a faculty committee must approve if a professor can use his or her own text. North Dakota State University and the University of North Texas caution professors against making money off the sales of their texts to their students unless the text is “independently accepted” in its field.

UB professors, however, do not need to justify why they are using their own book. They are not required to give royalties back to their students.

The only choice students have is buy the book or drop the class.

*Name has been changed to protect identity

email: emma.janicki@ubspectrum.com


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