Trust the professors, and trust the system

By Will Katcher

(Katherine Mayo/ Daily Collegian)

About a week into the semester, rumors circled amongst students of possible ethical violations faculty could be involved in. Word was that professors who had authored textbooks were including them as required materials for their classes. The books, which could run over $60 apiece, were difficult to find and the high price tag led many students to question where their money was going, and if it was ending up back in their educators’ pockets.

This seemed to me to be a serious ethical concern that the university was overlooking, so I began researching the topic and looking into whether the allegations were true.

Fortunately, I could not have been more wrong.

Not only are there university policies in place to prevent professors from profiting off of students, but the motives are generally positive for professors who write their own textbooks.

Take Gerald Friedman, for instance, professor of economics who gained national attention last year for his analysis of then-presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ economic policy. My initial research told me that, with several hundred students a semester each buying one of his $60 textbooks, Friedman could be pulling in tens of thousands of dollars a year.

However, as I gathered while talking with Friedman, he had written the textbook after years of relying on more orthodox, but less understandable, readings. “For years I criticized the books,” Friedman remembers. “So I decided: I’ll take my notes and write my own.”

Friedman also described other professors he knew to be in similar situations, notably Robert Feldman, professor of psychology, who served as Senior Advisor to the Chancellor until his retirement last year. According to Friedman, Feldman “had a very widely-used textbook in psychology, but he donated the profits to [a] scholarship fund.”

The sense Friedman had was that most professors who write their own texts operate in a similar manner, although he did note one educator he knew of at Harvard University who is said to be pulling in a profit on his books.

This situation has also come to the forefront at other large research universities. San Diego State University professor Charles Tatum was criticized just last week in the school newspaper’s editorial section. Not long after that story was published, the University of Pittsburgh’s Pitt News ran a piece investigating several humanities professors at the school.

At the University of Massachusetts, where there is a significant structure and culture in place to prevent ethics violations, the lesson seems to be that we should trust the professors and trust the system that guides them in their teaching. Of the royalty that Dollars and Sense Publishing gives to Friedman for his textbooks, much of the money goes back into creating the next edition of the book. Research assistants need to be paid, editing must happen and the long process of putting ideas into a teachable form needs to take place.

In a nutshell, professors don’t tend to write textbooks out of personal enjoyment. For Friedman, other texts lacked the information and style that he needed to be able to teach out of them reliably. For others, writing a textbook is simply a way of organizing a career’s worth of research and discoveries.

As Friedman put it, “I can write what I believe, and I can tailor the book to my course,” – a much more noble undertaking than the one I originally envisioned.

The true lesson, though, is that while a scoop on educators funneling student’s money into their own bank accounts may have been a juicy story to print, it wouldn’t have been true. Not often enough is the story told of people in government or high-level positions simply doing the right thing. Often the stories we see are sensationalist or designed to draw clicks and retweets. We are too used to focusing our energy on stories that are depressingly revealing. As a journalist, it’s not only my job to write about the negatives, but to also include the positives. We all need a little bit of a pick-me-up, now more than ever, and knowing that our faith in our professors to do the right thing can now be restored might be just what we need.

Will Katcher is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]