Monday, January 4, 2016

Another Professor In Trouble For Integrity

By Professor Doom

    It’s really is amazing how often a professor saying to administration, “we should treat our students honestly” is viewed with condemnation. I know I received many smackdowns for asking for changes in policy that would help students, but this story is particularly interesting:

   Now, there’s a big potential for conflict of interest in textbooks: the professor writes the book, then forces his students, a captive audience, to buy them. The professor makes money off royalties, no matter how terrible the book is, and the students get…well, they get the privilege of having a professor who knows the material well enough to write a book on it.

      Despite the possible benefit, administration, very comfortable with giving themselves arrangements that enrich themselves despite conflicts of interest, nevertheless at most schools make it policy that faculty cannot profit from books they sell to their students; in this case, the royalties get donated to the university, or the department, and the money is used for scholarship.

     Faculty have integrity, acknowledge the conflict of interest, and don’t complain…it’s a shame we can’t force admin to play by comparable rules.

     Anyway, the department head in this case has written the book, and, while he’s not teaching the course, is in a position to force students to buy his book…thus getting around the usual “conflict of interest” prohibitions.

     The professor in this case doesn’t much like the book his boss is forcing him to use, and would rather use a different book. Can a professor use whatever books he wants for his courses? Usually, academic freedom allows this, although course textbooks are often picked by a committee. Anyway, the professor decided to exercise academic freedom over his book choice, and smackdown followed:

University officials threatened Alain Bourget last year with discipline as serious as dismissal after Bourget taught his sophomore-level course, Introduction to Linear Algebra and Differential Equations, with his preferred books.

     As an aside, there has been huge growth in enrollment in differential equations-type courses the last few years. The “big oil boom” is one of the few industries remaining that are providing high-paying jobs in exchange for very expensive degrees…I suspect oil’s rapidly dropping price will soon lead to a “big oil bust” soon, however. I used to teach at a huge state school famous for its engineering programs: it had about 50 differential equations students every semester; now 300 or more students are taking this fairly advanced and specialized course.

     Anyway, the faculty decides “I’m not going to force my students to buy a $180 book I don’t like, I’ll make them buy a cheaper book that is better, in my opinion.”
     Admin wasn’t about to let this minor act of defiance go unchallenged:

The university says he violated policy and went against orders from the provost and former dean of the math and sciences college, according to the reprimand letter.

     Now, for what it’s worth, the $180 book is popular, I’ve even used it for courses:

The book, “Differential Equations and Linear Algebra,” was written by Stephen W. Goode and Scott A. Annin, the chair and vice chair of the university’s math department.

     I know this isn’t the best place for a review of a book on an obscure topic, but I’ll be quick. This textbook gives fine explanations of many concepts, and one can gain good understanding of differential equations from it.

      The book does have some weak points. Its variation of parameters type problems (and discussion) could be a bit more approachable. Its discussion of linear algebra is too abstract, made all the worse because the book’s problems generally don’t use the linear algebraic results except in very circumstantial ways—you could rip these chapters out of the middle of the book and be able to do everything else, even the later chapters, just as well. The worst problem is the book is extremely lean on applications—a student can easily master all the theoretical material in this book, and be completely unable to actually apply any of it to any real world problems. In short, it’s a nice mathematician’s book, but not so good for engineers, more focused on “how do I use this to answer questions” than in abstract theory. As most people taking the course nowadays are planning to become engineers, the latter issue is fairly critical.

      I’m hardly the only one to share such concerns (honest, I wrote my quick review before reading the professor’s):

Bourget dislikes the book because it’s what he describes as a “succession of topics with little connection among them.” The Goode-Annin text also lacks practical examples, which are important to students in this course, most of whom are engineering majors, he adds.

     So, the professor found some good books, one that cost less than half of the “forced” text, and another that was free. Free. For what it’s worth, most textbooks, even the expensive ones, can be purchased as PDFs for very little cost. Admittedly, the legality of doing this is questionable at best, but I don’t force my students to purchase anything, and I respect they might want to save several hundred dollars a semester. Integrity…it really needs to come back to higher education.

In November 2013, the university assembled a committee to discuss Bourget’s concerns with the Goode-Annin book. No consensus was reached, so no changes were made to department policies, according to Bourget’s reprimand letter. Bourget was to continue using the Goode-Annin textbook.

     Having integrity, Bourget just went ahead and helped his students in the way he thought was best. A committee found him in grievous error for trying to help his students. I’ve written before of the kangaroo campus court system. I’ve been on both ends of this corrupt system, and much like many committee decisions, it was insultingly bad:

Fellow math professor Tyler McMillen, who was part of the committee to discuss Bourget’s concerns, said the meeting was “kind of a joke.” There was no agenda, no minutes taken and no motions passed, he said. Neither Goode nor Annin was part of the committee.

     Hey, at least the textbook authors weren’t on the committee; I’ve seen quite a few such committees where the conflicts of interests were hysterically blatant. I’ve also seen committee decisions that look like they were written by chimps. Generally, textbook choices are considered every few years, there’s obviously something odd going on here, even if the book is perfectly serviceable:

Up until that committee meeting, there had been no discussion of text selection for the Math 250B course over 25 years, which means the Goode-Annin book has “never been questioned,” said McMillen, a friend of Bourget’s.

     Seriously, it’s not even possible to consider that there’s been some improvement in explanation of the topic over the course of 25 years? It’s far more likely that conflicts of interest have clouded the judgement of some people here.

      The faculty member, having no conflict of interest, made a decision to try to help his students as best he can. He’ll try to appeal the rulings against him, but, having myself made similar appeals to integrity and been rebuffed by people that simply don’t understand the word, I don’t hold much hope for him.