Math professor’s textbook choice adds up to controversy at Cal State Fullerton
Associate professor Alain Bourget said it was the right decision to allow his students to ditch the textbook long-used in a Cal State Fullerton math class for a cheaper one he thought was more relevant.
But that decision has now divided the math department and stirred a debate over academic freedom, the propriety of instructors using their personal textbooks and who ultimately controls the design of courses.
Bourget was given a written reprimand and threatened with dismissal last year after administrators said he violated a policy that required the use of a common textbook for math 250B, Introduction to Linear Algebra and Differential Equations.
Administrators argue that textbook selection at the Fullerton campus is made at the departmental level and requires coordination when multiple sections of the same course are offered and taught by different instructors.
The reprimand, written by interim dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics David Bowman, said that Bourget acted contrary to the orders of Provost Jose Luis Cruz that he follow department and college procedures.
Bourget argues that the June 2014 reprimand was improper. He filed a grievance and a hearing before a campus academic committee is scheduled for Friday. That panel will make a recommendation to Cal State Fullerton President Mildred Garcia on whether to remove the reprimand from his personnel file.
Whatever the outcome, the case has roiled the math faculty. Bourget and his supporters contend that he sought to provide his students with a better textbook than the one adopted by other instructors. Further, they argue that there was no clear policy ruling out Bourget’s preference for course materials when he last taught the class in the spring of 2014.
He said the class has not been assigned to him since.
“A lot of people on campus are now scared about academic freedom and are horrified by this,” said Bourget, who has taught at the campus for nine years. “I did this because I believe in what’s best for my students. You have to have some integrity and respect your job.”
Bourget said he also questions the appropriateness of the department’s longtime use of a textbook co-authored by Chairman Stephen W. Goode and Vice Chairman Scott A. Annin and whether their influence and position constitute a conflict of interest.
Different editions of the Goode-Annin book have been used at the campus for 25 years. A new copy costs $180 at the campus bookstore but it can be rented and purchased for less online.
The textbook selected by Bourget costs less than half of the Goode-Annin book and other course material was free online, he said.
“It’s OK for people to use their own text. I’m not against that, but the problem is when they come to the department and force their text on everyone,” Bourget said.
In an email, Annin said he couldn’t discuss department policy because of the hearing, but he noted that “dozens of highly regarded colleges and universities across the country have adopted the [Goode-Annin] textbook, so I will let that speak for itself with regards to the soundness of the text as a whole.”
Among schools using the book, according to its publisher, Pearson, are USC, NYU, the University of Pennsylvania and several community colleges.
Goode said it would be “inappropriate to discuss” Bourget’s case, but noted that his book “was specifically written to address the needs of higher-level math courses at CSUF,” as well as specific academic skills requested by the College of Engineering and Computer Science.
Bourget, who has tenure, said that he told department officials that he wanted to use different course materials in fall 2013 and was referred to a 1984 policy to use a single textbook for the course.
But that policy didn’t specify a particular book or author and no discussion of alternatives had occurred over the years, said Mahamood Hassan, president of the campus faculty association. After an ad hoc committee was unable to reach a consensus on changing textbooks, Bourget decided to use new materials.
The department’s treatment of Bourget “violates academic freedom and is anti-scholarly,” said Hassan, an accounting professor who is representing Bourget at the hearing.
Bowman said he couldn’t discuss Bourget’s grievance hearing. But he said that Goode and Annin were not included in the committee discussion because of a possible conflict of interest.
Bowman added that the department agreed last year to continue requiring the Goode-Annin book for the math 250B course and that Goode recused himself from that vote.
Math professor Tyler McMillen, who has taught the same course, said he agreed that departmental policy had been unclear. He said that he, too, had problems with the Goode-Annin textbook and often used supplemental materials.
“But it was a sensitive subject to bring up for a junior faculty member,” McMillen said. “To say the atmosphere is poisonous would be an understatement.”
The math department may be within its rights to require a single textbook if a policy already exists, said Hank Reichman, a vice president of the American Assn. of University Professors.
“In general teachers should have the right to select their own materials consistent with the aims of the course except where an EXISTING policy developed by the faculty teaching the class mandates specific selections,” Reichman wrote in an email. “In short, teachers should select their own materials either individually or through a participatory group process involving those who teach the class.”
Emily Bonney, chairwoman of the campus Academic Senate, said her group had no specific policy on the right of professors to use textbooks they choose but that it will address the matter, noting that issues of pedagogy and course design are complex.
“It would be inappropriate to say [Bourget’s case] is a straightforward matter of freedom to choose being trumped,” Bonney said. “In any policy we do craft, we would never want to say that faculty have an untrammeled right to use whatever they want to use. Otherwise what is the point of having a curriculum?”
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