Book ban puts dent in profits

PDF: House Bill 1851

Students told to buy textbooks written by their professors may get the right of refusal if a bill in the Tennessee General Assembly gains traction.

The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, says students at public universities don't have to buy textbooks from professors who have a financial interest in the materials assigned.

A University of Tennessee government relations liaison scoffed at the proposed legislation at a recent meeting of the UT board of trustees, saying professors who have written textbooks should be prized, not punished.

Anthony Haynes told trustees it doesn't make sense to recruit the nation's top academics and tell them that students don't have to buy their published research for classwork.

Some college students have a different opinion.

"These professors are lining their pockets," said Tres Wittum, a senior at UTC who was required to purchase a professor's book for a class. "They are not well known, and they are probably not going to sell a bunch of copies."

Bob Swansbrough, political science professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga who teaches with his book "Test by Fire" about the foreign policies of President George W. Bush, said he thinks assigning his book helps garner respect from students about his expertise.

"I think it's good for students to see that our UTC faculty are active scholars in their field, engaged in research, excited about their and professionals who publish in their discipline," Dr. Swansbrough said.

The bill is currently on hold, but Rep. Campfield said he plans to push the legislation in the next few weeks.

He said several University of Tennessee students, especially those in the social sciences, have told him they are concerned about professors assigning texts they have written, then writing updates to the texts so students can't sell the books as used.

"Teachers are getting a book and changing it every year and the old books are useless," Rep. Campfield said. "(This bill) is a way of trying to keep people from victimizing a captive audience."

Rep. Campfield said he has gotten a lot of push back from UT officials, who argue university professors should be writing books and using them in classes. Tenure and promotion at colleges often is tied to the number and quality of published works.

Professors also use publications to boost their earnings because faculty pay hasn't increased in several years, he said.

"They have come out and said this could hurt our professors' earning capacity," Rep. Campfield. "It is proof positive that there needs to be a change."

The bill was among several pieces of legislation UT officials told trustees they are following because they affect the university.

Hank Dye, UT system vice chancellor for public and government relations, said he would not discuss the bill because it was taken off the table in the House Higher Education Subcommittee.

"I am not going to talk about it as long as its not an active bill," he said. "There is nothing to talk about unless we know what it is going to look like."

UT board Vice Chairman Jim Murphy said colleges should make sure professors are assigning the best textbooks for their classes, but he said it is shortsighted to limit professors in what they can or cannot ask the students to read.

"The reality is that we encourage our professors to publish and be leaders in their field, which is recognized by a publisher publishing a textbook that they write," Mr. Murphy said. "We need to be careful if there is an abuse of that situation. We need to be careful about using books because they are good books, not just because a professor has published them."