Retrenchment, Day 34

I spent Labor Day working on Open Ed, partly with a colleague in the Library and partly on my own. We talked about a lot of ways faculty in classrooms and in the library can work toward reducing student textbook expense. It's interesting to me though, that a lot of this seems to be driven by teachers and librarians who want to do something to make life easier for their students (although several aspects of it are resisted by our union). Not so much support (although often a lot of talk) from administrators who it would seem would want to attract more students to their institutions. And not as much support as you might expect from students themselves. Not, I think, because they don't want to pay less for course materials. But because they believe they have no agency on the issue.

I heard from a student of mine who is an officer in the student government that when the Student Senate met last semester with the Provost and his AVP for Academic Affairs, they were told they really couldn't do anything but adopt a non-binding resolution
requesting that faculty and administration explore ways to reduce textbook costs. I didn't see a transcript or anything, so I don't really know what was said by whom, or in what context. But I think it's significant that the message the student received and repeated to me was, your organization has no power.

I suppose that might be literally true, in a limited way. If the administration was telling them, "you cannot pass a motion that will legally
compel us to explore OERs", they may have been technically correct. But I don't think that is the end of the story and in any case I don't think students should try to force the university to do anything. They should simply act as consumers and vote with their dollars. If there are two courses that meet a requirement and one uses an expensive textbook while the other has no textbook expense, the students are certainly free to choose the less expensive course. If the zero-textbook-cost course doesn't happen to be on our campus, the system has transfer guidelines insuring that courses meeting the transfer requirements "count", wherever a student takes them. I think this will go a long way toward creating some incentive for people on a particular campus to get moving on reducing cost.

There was some controversy, over the past couple of years, when the Minnesota State system office added a capability in the online course selection system that allowed a student to search for courses without textbook expenses. This was necessary, of course, in order to implement the Z-Degree programs at the community colleges. If students couldn't see which courses were zero-textbook-cost, how would they be able to choose the right ones? The problem was, the universities were not at that time implementing Z-Degrees, so there wasn't a similar need at four-year schools.

To make matters more complicated, the union that represents university faculty was dead set against the feature. They argued it was a violation of "Academic Freedom" for faculty to have to disclose whether they used expensive textbooks or not. I disagreed with my union's position, because I don't think it violates my academic freedom to be asked to tell the truth. The union was trying to protect its members from the
consequences of acting in a way that was less desirable to students. I thought they had a point that often there's more going on than just textbook cost. But if that's the case, instructors ought to explain the complexity to students and convince them. Not hide from the question.

In the end, though, it doesn't really matter whether the union allows or prevents the system office from disclosing to students how much a textbook costs in a particular class. Students can't be prevented from discussing those details among themselves. Or from publishing a list of courses and textbook costs. They're the consumers and they have a legal as well as a moral right to consider and talk about any factors that may seem relevant to them. The only thing that's stopping them, I think, is their lack of awareness of how much power they actually hold, if they choose to use it.

It's entirely possible I won't end up working for the system at all next year. If that's the case, maybe I'll take a course, join the statewide student organization, and make some suggestions.

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