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A photo illustration of a sticker saying "FREE 2024 Fall Special" on a textbook with a $99.99 price tag.

Faculty members are questioning how West Texas A&M University will be able to stop charging for textbooks by next fall.

Photo illustration by Justin Morrison/Inside Higher Ed | Getty Images | Rawpixel

West Texas A&M University’s president made a splashy announcement late last week: effective next fall, his university would no longer charge students for “textbooks.”

“If a course requires a textbook, the college’s dean will utilize college resources to pay for the textbook—not the student or student fees,” Walter V. Wendler wrote in an email Thursday to students, staff and faculty members. (His message did note that there are a “multitude of examples … which will surface” of “reference books and digital materials,” such as the International Building Code, that won’t be considered “textbooks.”)

“I wrote an op-ed published on October 26, 2018, entitled Text-Book Free, Not Free Textbooks,” Wendler wrote. “I waited and prodded for campus responses for five years. In some areas, faculty worked diligently to help reduce the use of textbooks and have succeeded in varying degrees. During the ensuing five years, the world has changed remarkably as more information is available from web search engines and generative artificial intelligence (AI) programs, which make possible the development of teaching materials for every course we teach.”

His university followed up with a news release Friday, calling it an “ambitious plan.” But Wendler said Monday that he doesn’t quite know how it will work.

“I don’t think I’m the only university president in the United States of America that doesn’t know how many courses require textbooks,” he told Inside Higher Ed. “We’ve never done a serious analysis of it.”

“We are going to run an experiment basically to see what happens,” he said. “We’re just trying to increase accessibility, and we’ll see. You may have to do a follow-up.”

Wendler didn’t answer when asked whether any faculty member would be told next fall that they can’t assign a textbook. He said the Texas A&M System committed to not raising tuition or academic fees until 2025, meaning West Texas can’t increase student charges to help pay for the as yet unknown number of textbooks that will still be assigned.

In April, the West Texas Faculty Senate voted 179 to 82 to express its lack of confidence in Wendler’s leadership. The no-confidence resolution cited the president’s decision to bar a drag show from campus. He said drag shows “stereotype women in cartoon-like extremes for the amusement of others and discriminate against womanhood.” An LGBTQ+ student group, represented by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, sued him; the lawsuit is ongoing.

The no-confidence resolution also criticized other actions, including Wendler’s statements around textbooks.

“President Wendler’s messaging about the ‘affordability’ of college has disproportionately focused on relatively small expenses, such as textbook costs, rather than more significant impacts on tuition and student fees,” the resolution said. By moving the university “toward becoming ‘the first “textbook free” campus in Texas,’” it added, “President Wendler has infringed on the academic freedom of WT faculty to select pedagogical materials best-suited to their area of expertise and impacted WT’s reputation as an academic institution.”

The resolution also criticized Wendler’s “encouraging faculty to invest significant time” to create “open-access materials rather than developing or revising materials with traditional publishers.”

Textbooks and other curricular materials have become a big part of conversations about higher ed affordability, especially at community colleges and other public institutions where those costs amount to a not-insignificant portion of students’ spending. Numerous colleges have created “zero-textbook-cost courses,” states have adopted policies furthering open educational resources and Congress has passed and is considering more legislation targeting high textbook costs.

Many initiatives aimed at driving down textbook costs run into faculty members’ worries about their control over the curriculum. A 2019 Inside Higher Ed survey of faculty members found that professors overwhelmingly agreed that textbooks and course materials cost too much, and more than two-thirds said colleges should embrace open educational resources as an alternative. But only one in five agreed that “the need to help students save money on textbooks justifies some loss of faculty member control over selection of materials for the courses they teach.”

David Craig, a tenured associate professor of physics at West Texas A&M, wasn’t on the Faculty Senate during the April no-confidence vote, but he recently became its president. Craig said he heard about the president’s plan at a meeting with Wendler at 10 a.m. Thursday, and when he returned to his office the president’s announcement was in his inbox.

Craig said he himself uses some open educational resources (OER): free learning materials that can be downloaded, used and shared by students and faculty in lieu of often-costly textbooks and other materials. He said, “There are a host of issues around, you can imagine, costs, contract issues, all sorts of things.”

“I would generally say faculty response is not positive,” he said. “There’s just a vast host of issues that this doesn’t address in any detail at all.” He said Wendler’s Thursday email is “basically all we have now” as far as a written statement explaining how it will work.

On Friday, Craig signed a letter, “on behalf of the Faculty Senate,” saying,

“The faculty wholeheartedly supports the efforts to cut student costs. We also support the efforts to position West Texas A&M University as a leader in advanced education at a competitive cost. We want to emphasize the importance of the quality of educational materials, such as textbooks. The fall 2024 textbook deadline and mandate to pass all textbook costs to the colleges has taken the Senate by surprise. The Senate feels that this decision and position requires careful consideration and input by the faculty and students. There are many detailed questions and concerns that must be addressed to assure our continued reputation as a quality institution of higher learning. The Senate would like to work with you and the administration to ensure a positive path forward.”

In his Thursday email, Wendler suggested using AI to create textbooks, but he also said it would be “foolhardy” to assume “AI will replace the subject matter expertise of our faculty.”

“Educational goals will be realized through excellence in teaching by our faculty … workshops will focus on the utilization of AI and other information technology in developing all course materials, accessibility requirements and other aspects of the effort,” he said. “In effect, every faculty member will become their own ‘publishing house’ to compile and share the content of their subject area of expertise with their students. Fourteen workshops for the fall semester are scheduled, and based on demand, more will follow in the spring semester.”

Darrell Lovell, an assistant professor of political science who runs the university’s master of public administration program, posted Friday on X that “Faculty will now be tasked with ‘individually creating’ our own materials for each class and we should use AI to assist in generating our materials. We now have the honor of ‘becoming our own publishing house’ and this emboldens our academic freedom. This will be fun.”

Mark McBride, co-founder of the Open Education Research Lab at the University at Buffalo, part of the State University of New York, said that open educational resources won’t be able to cover every subject.

“As you start to work in it, and you start getting into the actual red tape of how things work and, more importantly, when you start to look at what would happen if all material were OER, it would probably take decades to get there because there just isn’t enough open content,” McBride said. He’s currently an associate director of the nonprofit Ithaka S+R, whose website says it “aims to broaden access to quality postsecondary education, improve student outcomes and advance research and knowledge.”

“There’s just too many subjects, and there’s just not enough people producing quality content,” he said. He also noted there are other student educational resources beyond textbooks, such as labs and online platforms, that students must pay for.

But, he said, “I applaud the president and the institution for actually trying to do something about it because it is still a pain point.”

Wendler said, “Until we try it, we don’t know.”

“It is challenging, and I recognize [that], but I think we should give it a good try and see what happens,” he said. “And my guess is we’re going to be surprised.”

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