Trust the professors, and trust the system

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.

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