Few students can walk into a Cornell dorm room today without seeing Power Sleep, the best-selling snoozer’s bible by Prof. James Maas, psychology, beaming down from its perch atop a bookshelf.
But with the rising cost of college textbooks garnering increasing attention, many Cornellians have raised ethical questions over professors’ assigning their own books to students in their classes.
According to a Government Accountability Office report released in July, American students spend more than $6 billion each year on textbooks. Cornell students spent roughly $8.3 million on textbooks purchased from The Cornell Store this semester. While this figure includes sales of used books (about 20 percent of sales at The Cornell Store), it does not account for purchases from other local or online retailers.
This fall, Cornell faculty assigned books they authored to 80 undergraduate classes, just under 5 percent of all undergraduate courses offered this semester.
“The tradition is that faculty are permitted, indeed encouraged to write books, including text books and then obviously, having written them, they want to use them in their courses because they really encapsulate the material that they cover in their courses,” said Prof. Charles Walcott, Dean of Faculty.
Some faculty have recognized the potential for a conflict of interest and designed mechanisms to overcome this concern.
“As a matter of course, whenever I use a book that I’ve written, I either give the royalties directly back to the students or I make a donation to the scholarship fund in the ILR school because I think there is sort of a conflict of interest when we assign our own books, especially when they’re required to take it,” said Ronald Ehrenberg, Irving M. Ives Professor of Industrial and Labor Relations and Economics. “That’s a personal feeling and many faculty members do not agree with that.” Ehrenberg currently teaches Economics Analysis of the University and included his works, Governing Academia and Tuition Rising on the syllabus.
Many professors, including Theodore Lowi, John L. Senior Professor of American Institutions and Isaac Kramnick, Richard J. Schwartz Professor of Government and former vice provost for undergraduate education, offer similar arrangements.
As a professor “you are in a position of authority requiring students to engage in an economic transaction from which you directly benefit. It’s the personal relationship that one has with one’s own students in his own class that is complicated by this seemingly economic transaction,” Kramnick said. “It just doesn’t feel right.”
“On the other hand,” Kramnick added, “I have no problem accepting the royalty check that comes from colleagues at other universities and at Cornell that assign my book to their students.”
Maas sees no conflict in requiring Power Sleep for his popular Introduction to Psychology class. “Any profit from book sales to my students I put immediately into 101 to purchase films and make films for the course. I am totally against making any money from sales to students! I get about seven cents per copy from new paperback sales,” Maas stated in an email.
Most Cornell professors inform their students of such arrangements early each semester.
Prof. W. Bruce Currie, animal science, includes his explanation on his syllabi. “Because the instructor for AS 100 is the author of Structure and Function of Domestic Animals, there exists the potential for conflict of interest because the text is required, and royalty payments are made to the author from new sales of the book,” the Domestic Animal Biology I syllabus reads. “Royalties accruing from new sales to students in AS 100 are donated in their entirety to Cornell University.”
Not all faculty, however, agree on how to handle these royalties and many see special arrangements like Currie’s as unnecessary. “It’s a very individual matter and there certainly is no general policy on it,” Walcott said.
Asked if he donated royalties from sales of Differential Equations to students in Differential Equations and Dynamical Systems, Prof. John Hubbard, mathematics responded: “I do not have any such arrangement, and I am not proposing to establish one. Writing textbooks is immensely time-consuming, and emphatically not lucrative.”
“The proposals to have professors donate the small sums they earn from their books is just a way of telling them not to write books,” Hubbard added.
Most faculty hold that the opportunity for students to learn from leaders in various academic fields through lectures and corresponding readings outweighs the conflict that arises from the often marginal royalties.
Prof. Satya Mohanty, English, said his book, Literary Theory and Claims of History, “is the background of the material, which you couldn’t get in any other way [because] these ideas are not explored in any other book.”
“The royalties you get are so puny, you wouldn’t even notice. I’ve never calculated how much it would be, but it’s minimal usually,” he added.
Others consider the non-economic elements involved.
According to Prof. Gordon Potter, hotel administration, “professors usually write books because they are dissatisfied with the existing texts and believe they can make a contribution. Assigning your own book should lead to an escalation of commitment to your students – A conflict of interest would occur, however, if later on the professor realizes the book content is of low quality, or is impacting teaching performance, and he or she fails to adjust.”
Many Cornellians believe the question of ethics hinges on the circumstances involved.
“If a textbook is great and the course is well taught, that’s good for all stakeholders,” stated Margie Whiteleather, Strategic Projects Manager for The Cornell Store. “If the textbook is not useful, and doesn’t fit the teaching of the course well, that’s a problem, and there [are] ways to address it.”
Archived article by Joshua Goldman
Sun Staff Writer