Cash for books: an academic monopoly

UB needs to take action and regulate the sale of self-authored textbooks

The exorbitant costs of textbooks is one of the most universally reviled aspects of the university experience, but in some classes at UB it’s also ethically questionable and clearly unregulated.

As reported in last Monday’s issue of The Spectrum, multiple professors on campus write their own textbooks and include them as required texts for students enrolled in their class.

Though UB is far from the only university with faculty using their own published works, its lack of policy on the matter stands out.

Without any form of oversight or regulation, students are left with questions, wondering if their instructor is inflating book prices or requiring a subpar text simply to make a profit.

There’s no evidence, or even the suggestion thereof, that any UB faculty have done anything uncouth.

But students shouldn’t have to wonder.

A formal policy would offer students the reassurance they deserve, so when they hand over cash directly to their professor, as students enrolled in STA119 with Dietrich Kulhmann have done for years, they can do so without anxiety.

There are certainly benefits to professor teaching from textbooks they’ve authored. It’s essentially guaranteed that the text will be tailored to the course, with only relevant material included. And professors are more likely to know the material by heart when they’ve written it themselves.

And frequently, there are financial benefits for students – Kulhmann, for example, charged $40 for a bundle of three textbooks, which he says was just enough to cover the costs of producing the texts.

Considering that textbooks for introductory statistics courses often cost over $100, Kuhlmann’s price seems like a steal.

But at the same time, when professors require that students purchase their textbooks, they eliminate alternative, cheaper options that many students pursue.

The proliferation of complaints over textbooks prices has led to a flurry of businesses, like Chegg, BookRenter and Amazon, which offer textbook rentals at a fraction of the price.

Those sites aren’t an option for students whose required texts are self-published. And the possibility of buying used texts, or borrowing books from the library is also eliminated.

Professors who require and sell their own texts essentially establish a monopoly on their students, forcing them to purchase books they may not want to own long term.

Though the practice isn’t disallowed, or even outright dishonest, considering that other professors often upload course materials online for their students – at no charge – the instructors that choose to sell their own texts are requiring an economic hardship for their students.

Given that the pros and cons of this practice are extensive, at the very least, UB’s administration needs to step up and take control of the situation. Schools in other states, including New Jersey, Connecticut and Washington, prohibit professors from making a profit off of their textbook sales. Other universities require that a committee review professors’ texts before being used in a course.

Both of these regulatory practices are straightforward and easy to implement and would go a long way in protecting students without unduly limiting professors.

Students should have access to the best text available in their subject, and professors should have the right to offer their own work if it’s the most useful class resource – but that “if” should be determined by someone who isn’t collecting the cash.