A Year Later, Cal State Fullerton Textbook Controversy Is Still Brewing

Cal State Fullerton campus.

It’s been nearly a year since Cal State Fullerton math professor Alain Bourget made headlines by refusing to use a textbook that was authored by his boss in the university’s math department and cost students nearly $100 more than the book he wanted to use.

Bourget’s stand, and the reprimand he received for it, sparked a heated debate within the academic community on the ethics of professors authoring the books they assign their students. It also led to a new textbook policy adopted by the university’s academic senate in May.

But the early reviews from Bourget and others are that the new policy does little to address the issue.

“After all the noise the story made, it didn’t change CSUF or the math department,” Bourget said.

Added fellow math professor and Bourget supporter Tyler McMillan: “[The policy] is pretty useless in that it doesn’t have any protection for a minority opinion. It doesn’t address conflict of interest issues.”

Meanwhile, Bourget said his chances for a promotion this year might be jeopardized because of the letter of reprimand issued to him last year for not using the department-mandated book, which was written by math department chairman Stephen Goode and vice chairman Scott Annin. It remains the required text for the introductory linear algebra and differential equations class known as Math 250B.

Although not teaching the class this semester, Bourget reaffirmed his preference for a book written by MIT math legend Gilbert Strang.

Strang’s book costs about $90, while Goode and Annin’s is around $175, according to Amazon.com. The prices reflect the current editions of each book.

The Battle in the Academic Senate

The new policy, which was approved by the university’s academic senate during final exams week last spring when many members could not be present for the vote, does include a provision that faculty members who author textbooks can no longer sit on department ad hoc committees that choose textbooks if a book they wrote is under consideration.

Bourget and others support this new provision, but say in order for the policy to truly reform the system, it needs to include an appeals process for professors who want alternatives to the mandatory textbooks.

According to the May academic senate minutes, a proposed amendment would have allowed a professor to appeal to a university-wide curriculum committee after “they exhausted the departmental appeals.” The decision made by the committee would have been binding on the department, so long as the text met all the curriculum standards.

The vote on the amendment among members present was 13-13, with Emily Bonney, the senate’s chairwoman breaking the tie with a vote against it.

Bonney did not respond to a reporter’s request for an interview. She instead relayed her response via email through a university spokesman.

“We do not provide for a right of appeal from departmental decisions in any of our policy documents. It would have been inconsistent to do so in this case,” the email quotes Bonney as saying. “A faculty member is always able to express her or his concerns to the dean of the college.”

Seven senators were absent from the policy vote. Bourget said if they were there, the amendment would have passed.

Senator Michele Barr, who is the CSUF chapter president of the California Faculty Association, said if she and her colleague were there for the vote, they would have voted for it.

Do More Textbooks = More Confusion?

While some professors, including Bourget and McMillan, argue that having an alternative to a department mandated text is a good idea, there are others who say it is more trouble than it is worth.

Professor Adam Glesser said having more than one text could cause unneeded confusion for students and professors when students switch into different class sections.

“Not only is the book different, the content in that book is covering different things,” Glesser said.

Glesser said Strang’s book is more than suitable for 300-level and higher algebra classes. But, it’s not a good fit for 250B-level students. “We don’t have MIT students. Our students don’t come in with the same math background.”.

Glesser also considers an outside appeals committee to be a bad idea.

“The way I’m thinking about it is this: the people who understand math, more or less live in the math department,” Glesser said “I’m not sure who would be even reasonably eligible from outside the department [to make textbook decisions].”

Benefits of Peer Publishing

Math professor Bogdan Suceava is among those who worry that the Bourget controversy has created a hostile environment for CSUF faculty who want to write their own textbooks. Students will ultimately suffer if there is a disincentive for professors to publish, he said.

He cited different cases of professors who used their expertise to write a textbook geared for a specific class at CSUF.

“This has nothing to do with making money or preying on the students,” Suceava said. He added that he was thinking about writing a textbook for the university, but the situation in the department gave him second thoughts. “I was discouraged to write due to this atmosphere.”

Faculty members also pushed back against the notion that professors make a lot of money from sales of textbooks they write.

Glesser said that making a textbook publishing contract public record looks good on paper and it’s “good public relations, but ultimately it doesn’t really matter.” He said the publishers get most of the revenue. He is writing a math textbook and hopes the department will adopt it.

“Let’s just say I’m not looking to add an addition to my house,” Glesser said. “I suspect that, if our department adopts it, I might be able to take my wife out for a couple dinners a year.”

The Orange County Register reported earlier this year that in 2014 Goode made $5,028.51 in royalties from his algebra textbook. They were able to discern the amount through a series of emails between Goode and the publisher, Pearson.

Voice of OC filed a request under the California Public Records Act for Goode’s book contract, but a university official said CSUF has no such paperwork on hand.

Barr said those contracts should be available to the public. “I’m a huge proponent of transparency, so based on that, I do think it’s a good idea,” she said. “It seems like it would be a benefit to make it public record.”

In order to eliminate any “profit motive,” Bourget said that he would like a policy that mandates any faculty who have authored textbooks used at CSUF to donate the royalties to a scholarship on campus.

Communications professor and Academic Senator Jon Bruschke said CSU professors’ salaries have stagnated, many of them rely on the textbook publishing income to keep up with inflation.

Bruschke doesn’t have a problem with faculty authoring a textbook. However, he does have a problem when that textbook is mandated in a multi-section course, like math 250b.

“Frankly, it’s nobody else’s business what textbook they’re using,” Bruschke said. “Which one teaches best is up to the instructor.”

He noted that professors like Goode and Annin have to use commercial publishing companies like Pearson because the publisher will actively go to other universities and try to push their book, but it also drives the prices up.

An MIT professor, like Strang, can afford to do a more independent approach like self-publishing because his reputation as an MIT professor will drive sales of the book, Bruschke said.

In the end, as long as the students meet and demonstrate the learning goals of the course, it doesn’t matter what textbook a professor uses, Bruschke said.

“In freaking math, of all the subjects … when you’re done, you have to know linear algebra,” he said. “The end content is pretty much the same.”

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC contributing writer. He can be reached at spencercustodio@gmail.com.