Conflicts Over Textbook Choice

Cases at Miami Dade and UC Davis call into question professors' motivations.
February 19, 2007

Alfonso Pino, assistant professor of anatomy and physiology at Miami Dade College, sat on a three-person committee that makes textbook selection decisions for his department.

Two years ago, while serving in that role, Pino accepted an expenses-paid trip to San Francisco from a publisher whose book was under consideration by the committee. The publisher, Addison-Wesley/Benjamin Cummings, invited Pino to take part in a focus group on textbook development, according to information provided to the Florida Commission on Ethics, which investigated the arrangement.

As the Miami Herald revealed on Friday, within months, the textbook committee selected the publisher’s book. A complaint filed by an employee of a rival company alleges that Pino violated state statutes by accepting the trip with the understanding that the publisher hoped to influence his -- and the committee’s -- decision. Pino, who did not respond to messages, denied the allegations when interviewed by an investigator from the ethics commission’s office.

The commission cleared Pino on one ethical charge but found that by accepting “a thing of value,” he should have known that the publisher sought to influence a vote or other action in his capacity as a committee member. But the commission recommended that no further action be taken.

The ruling comes amid a steady drumbeat of complaints from students and the State Public Interest Research Groups that the cost of textbooks is rising too fast, and that professors are choosing material without keeping price in mind.

A senior lecturer at the University of California at Davis has come under fire for asking students to tear out worksheet pages from a textbook, which she authored.

“She has every right to use her book, but this is $76 for what is basically a summary of the lecture material, so we should be able to sell it back,” said Arlen Abraham, a Davis senior who has raised an issue with the policy.

The professor, Liz Applegate, who did not return calls for comment, told The California Aggie, Davis' student newspaper, that she instructs students to tear sheets out of the book for an assignment to prevent cheating.

The university's Academic Senate committee on student-faculty relationships last year determined that special accommodations were made for students who "cannot either afford or do not want to buy the textbook."

In the Miami Dade case, the college says it does not plan to investigate or take action against Pino.

Records provided to the ethics commission show that the cross-country trip cost under $700. The publisher also offered Pino a $250 honorarium but never paid him, according to the investigation.

Juan Mendieta, a spokesman at Miami Dade, said the college has no conflict-of-interest policy regarding textbook selection. He said the issue of how books are selected is already up for review this year by a college-wide executive committee, and that the review might yield a specific policy.

“We take these issues very seriously – whether perceived or real – and want to make sure we are doing things as air tight as possible,” Mendieta said. “It’s certainly something that can be reviewed.”

The textbook in question was already being used by the department, according to Mendieta.   

David Hakensen, a spokesman with Addison-Wesley/Benjamin Cummings, said that the company does not plan to change it practice of inviting scholars to its meetings.

“It’s a common practice – and it’s pretty clear that [Pino] went to his department chair and asked for permission,” Hakensen said. “It’s vital for us to hear feedback from professors to learn from them how our products can be better.”

In interviews with the ethics committee, a saleswoman from the publisher's office said that the company seeks out academics who are the most respected in their fields.

Bruce Hildebrand, executive director for higher education at the Association of American Publishers, agreed that the arrangement is common.

“A professor could ask for hundreds of dollars an hour for their time and will be paid much less to spend days reviewing a textbook," he said. "It’s part of the peer-review process that ensures that the publisher has the best minds looking at their work.

“It’s ironic that a faculty member working aggressively to make sure he is up to date on the material is being challenged for going the extra mile," Hildebrand added.

He said that in cases of faculty textbook selection, it's more than just the sell-back price that matters -- overall cost and the educational value should also be taken into account.


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