University letter urges professors to keep online textbook deals off syllabi

by Colleen Murphy | News Editor

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo
The University sent a letter to all professors this month, asking faculty to direct their students to the campus bookstore instead of online retailers. Hatchet File Photo

The University urged faculty this month only to tell students to buy textbooks from the campus bookstore instead of cheaper websites like Chegg and Amazon – eliciting outcry from professors and backtracking by administrators.

The University sent a letter to all faculty this month asking them not to tell students about cheaper online resources for ordering required books, insisting instead that they only refer students to the bookstore. The note prompted outcry from faculty who said the rule would limit their free speech, and Director of Campus Support Services Nancy Haaga backtracked on the message days later.

Professors said the letter demonstrated a lack of understanding of their responsibilities to help students learn, and they will continue to suggest cheaper textbook options for students.

“Being constrained is inappropriate. I can’t imagine faculty being gagged like that,” said Charles Garris, an engineering professor and the chair of the Faculty Senate.

He added that if the University had enforced the mandate, it would have restricted faculty members' ability to advocate for their students – one of the key tenets of academic freedom.

After they received the letter, several professors in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences complained to top administrators including Senior Vice Provost for Academic Affairs and Planning Forrest Maltzman and University President Steven Knapp.

Haaga, who has worked at GW for more than two decades, sent a second letter within a week retracting the previous instructions.

“Faculty members have discretion over what they put on their syllabi, and we needed to be clearer about that,” University spokesman Kurtis Hiatt said. He declined to comment on why GW sent the initial letter or who approved it.

The controversy highlights the pressure college bookstores are experiencing as students increasingly head online to buy textbooks. The online textbook rental company Chegg saw its online revenue grow 66 percent and overall revenue increase 22 percent in the first quarter of 2014, according to the company’s website.

A Hatchet analysis found at least seven textbooks in subjects like chemistry, American politics and macroeconomics were at least 13 percent more expensive at GW’s bookstore than on Amazon.

Universities typically receive a commission from sales in their campus bookstores, which is determined by their contracts with textbook providers like Follett Higher Education Group, Inside Higher Ed reported.

“There’s no question that if the money were rolling in and Follett was bathed in money and the University was getting its percent, who would complain?" economics professor Donald Parsons said. "I think surely the whole nut of this is that they looked around and found nobody is buying books at the bookstore anymore."

Haaga declined to provide textbook sales information for the last three years. In 2013, rentals increased 5 percent and comprised 28 percent of total textbook transactions, according to the latest data GW has released.

The average student will spend more than $1,000 on textbooks this year, the College Board estimated. Usher Lieberman, the vice president of communications at Chegg, said the company saw textbook rentals increase 21 percent in the first half of 2014.

“Students are savvy. They grew up with Amazon and know that online you have more options,” Lieberman said. “Colleges are under pressure, and they’ll pull the levers where they have to.”

Haaga declined to provide details about GW’s contract with its textbook supplier. Tom Kline, Follett’s spokesman, said the company does not release contractual details because of the “competitive nature of bookselling.”

Brandon Lee contributed reporting.

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