Cooler weather and midterms signal that the fall semester is now well underway. As students' memories of a hectic shopping period and expensive textbook purchases start to fade, we would like to remind faculty members of an important matter of principle: No Brown professor should profit from the book royalties they earn by assigning their own book to a class of Brown students.
The possibility that professors might be able to profit based on the books they assign makes for a textbook (sorry) case of a conflict of interest. Most book contracts stipulate that the author receive a percentage of the profits from sales. Even if a professor genuinely judges his or her own book to be the best in the field or the most relevant to the topic of the class, students could reasonably question the objectivity of that judgment. For larger classes and more expensive books, the opportunity for a windfall profit increases, fueling students' skepticism about the real reasons behind the course's reading list.
Some professors have sought to alleviate this concern by promising students they will donate royalties earned from their classes to charity. Professor James Morone has historically given away the royalties he earns from students purchasing his book for "POLS0220: City Politics." Since "City Politics" usually enrolls several hundred students whenever it has been taught, we applaud Morone for valuing the integrity of the course over what would probably be a tidy profit.
Of course, professors shouldn't have to donate the proceeds from self-assigned books to charity. They should also consider returning that money directly to their students. The University's 2009-10 cost of attendance projections expect each student to spend $633 per semester on books — that's $1,266 for the school year, a significant financial burden.
The high cost of college textbooks is a problem that has received attention on the national level. In 2005, the Government Accountability Office reported that the price of textbooks tripled between 1986 and 2004. And in 2008 congress passed legislation that requires textbook publishers to disclose more information about pricing and to sell supplemental materials like CDs separately from textbooks. However, these new requirements do not take effect until next year.
While the sort of rebate we're calling for is by no means a panacea, it would help reduce some students' book costs. And if a book truly is an essential text in its field, then sales at other schools should be sufficient to earn the author significant returns. A fraction of book royalties seems like a small price to pay for the University's improved transparency and integrity.
Students already pay tens of thousands of dollars for access to Brown's faculty and course offerings. The mere idea that a professor might assign a book to make a little extra money on the side strikes us as crass. We call on all professors who assign their own books to avoid the appearance of impropriety and do what's right.