No one likes rising textbook prices, but the bills may be even more painful to pay when it looks like a professor is cashing in on students. That's the sentiment at George Mason University, where students are grumbling about a professor who requires students to buy a book she helped to write, highlighting an ongoing debate about faculty profiting off their pupils.
Concerned about conflicts of interest, a number of universities now forbid professors from collecting royalties on textbooks they require their own students to purchase. But developers of some of these policies say they are admittedly tough to enforce, and there’s no real consensus across higher education about the best way to protect students from exploitation while retaining the rights of faculty to assign preferred texts.
George Mason has no policy governing faculty textbook profits, but Kamaljeet Sanghera might well fall into a gray area even if the university had a ban. A professor of applied information technology at George Mason, Sanghera requires students to buy a new copy of “Fundamentals of Computing” when they enroll, The Washington Post reported this week. While the course’s syllabus lists Sanghera as the book’s author, she says it is actually a “customized book” that contains some of her work along with several chapters taken from other authors. Under her agreement with Kendall Hunt Publishing, Sanghera says she received some up-front money for her work, but she doesn’t get any royalties based on individual sales. She wouldn't discuss how much she was paid initially.
A George Mason professor who contacted Inside Higher Ed about Sanghera’s book said he’d heard a number of students complain about it, assuming Sanghera was making profits off a captive market of students in her class.
“That is such a ridiculous comment,” Sanghera said. “I don’t know where it’s coming from.”
Ridiculous or not, some universities have adopted far-reaching policies in recent years that are designed to ensure conflicts of interest don’t arise from textbook assignments. At the University of Kansas, for instance, professors are required to donate any royalties made off their students to their departments, schools, scholarship funds or other nonprofit groups. It is up to faculty, however, to calculate the royalties they believe came from their classes and make the requisite donations.
Lisa Wolf-Wendel, Faculty Senate president at Kansas, said the textbook policy strikes the right balance between encouraging ethical behavior and not being heavy-handed with faculty who are encouraged to publish.
“I think this is sort of the most honorable way to do it,” said Wolf-Wendel, a professor of higher education. “There’s sort of an ethic to it that feels right to me. It’s an on-your-honor thing, so you decide how much profit you get back.”
Most textbooks aren’t that profitable, however, so faculty probably aren’t cutting huge checks back to Kansas, she added.
“When I get royalty checks, it’s for $8. Woo hoo,” she said.
Iowa State also has a policy requiring faculty to donate royalties received from students. The policy makes exceptions, however, if the professor’s department chair recommends royalties be retained and the dean and provost approve.
“Obviously it’s a conflict of interest issue, so we want to be as careful as we can there,” said Susan Carlson, Iowa State’s associate provost for faculty advancement and diversity. “Particularly as we’re thinking about relationships with students, even the appearance of conflict of interest gets in the way of education.”
There is far from being a consensus on how best to deal with the conflicts, however. A 2005 survey conducted by Rutgers University found a wide variety of polices across different institutions grappling with the issue. Some have all-out bans and others just require an administrator's permission.
While some universities have moved to regulate the use of faculty-authored texts, there's considerable disagreement about whether collecting royalties from students really represents a conflict in the first place. Bruce Hildebrand, executive director of the Association of American Publishers’ Higher Education Committee, says he's not so sure there's any real problem.
“If the book is a good book, it’s good for the students’ learning, it supports faculty’s ability to teach the subject, and the average major textbook takes three to five years to write; why would that person not be remunerated for three to five years of work? It’s not as if they are making huge sums of money on it,” Hildebrand said.
In a rare meeting of the minds with the publishers’ association, the Student Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) agreed that faculty receiving royalties from their own students wasn’t necessarily a problem. PIRGs have been outspoken about rising textbook prices, but faculty royalties aren't the issue, said Nicole Allen, textbooks advocate for the Student PIRGs.
“I’m sure in individual cases it’s a contributor to individual students paying more, but it’s not a factor in the larger market,” she said. “If you look at individual faculty members, the vast majority of them actually do care about cost.… Stopping that practice (of receiving royalties) is not going to make textbooks affordable.”
The Student PIRGs have, however, taken issue with a number of industry practices reflected in the debate at George Mason. PIRGs have decried the practice of publishers bundling materials together, for instance, saying the bundling forces students to buy CD-ROMs or other materials they may not need.
In Sanghera’s class at George Mason, the bundling of two assigned textbooks ensures students can’t buy used copies of either. One of the assigned books, Introduction to Computer Information Systems, contains a unique access code students need in order to take exams. The access code may be removed from used copies, and if it's still with the book when re-sold, then the code could provide access to the prior owner's grades or other personal information, Sanghera said.
“We’re basically saying please don’t sell your identity to other people,” said Sanghera, whose syllabus says “DO NOT buy used textbooks.”
Sanghera is listed as an editor of the second assigned text, Introduction to Computer Information Systems, but she said she receives no remuneration for sales.
Sensitive to criticism from students about the bundling, Sanghera says the two books will be sold separately next semester.
“I completely agree there should be used textbooks in the market,” she said, “and that’s exactly what’s going to happen with this textbook.”