Professors Find Differents Uses for Textbook Profits

Since N. Gregory Mankiw returned to Harvard to teach the College’s introductory economics class, 2,278 students have filled his weekly lectures, many picking up the former Bush advisor’s best-selling textbook, “Principle of Economics” along the way.

So, what has professor of economics Mankiw done with those profits?

“I don’t talk about personal finances,” Mankiw said, adding that he has never considered giving the proceeds to charity.

But in recent years, other professors have found different solutions to the sometimes awkward problem of profiting by requiring students to buy their own books, including making donations to charity.

With textbook prices sky high, some professors feel an obligation to donate the proceeds they receive by assigning their own textbooks for their classes. Kenneth A. Shepsle, the professor of government who teaches Social Analysis 46: “Thinking About Politics,” allows students to e-mail suggestions for where the charity money should go.

“I don’t like to make a profit off students,” Shepsle said. “I’m happy the publisher makes profit, but simply as a personal judgment, I donate my personal royalties to charity.”

Similarly, the professor who introduces thousands of Harvard undergraduates to what is just finds it unjust to profit from textbook sales.

Michael J. Sandel, a professor of government, notes on the syllabus for his class, Moral Reasoning 22: “Justice,” that all proceeds from textbook sales will go to charity.

Sandel said that he compiled the mandatory “Justice: A Reader” to bring down the costs of the required course materials from $150 to $35, and to make the readings available to courses at other universities.

Others avoid the publishing profit quagmire entirely by posting their course materials online, turning the Harvard Women’s Center, which offers free printing to visitors, into the new Harvard Coop.

Unlike for “Justice,” Sandel has put nearly all of the reading material for his Bioethics class, Life Sciences 60/Government 1093: “Ethics, Biotechnology, and the Future of Human Nature” online.

Harvard’s happiness professor said he views the shift towards putting course materials on the Web as a happy development.

“I see it as a win-win-win. For students, for the environment, and for the teaching staff,” said Tal Ben-Shahar, the psychology lecturer who teaches the popular Psychology 1504: “Positive Psychology” in an e-mailed statement. “And it is easier to have the readings online rather than creating a source book.”

Instead of choosing to go through a traditional publisher, professor James G. Anderson provides the textbook he wrote for free for Physical Sciences 1: “Chemical Bonding, Energy, and Reactivity,” through the course’s Web site. He and physics professor Efthimios Kaxiras, who teach the class together, co-wrote the textbook specifically for the course.

“An essential theme of the course is how global energy demand is expanding rapidly and running out of control,” Anderson said. “Putting the textbook online saves a massive amount of energy and printing.”

EDITIONAL PROBLEMS

Like many introductory textbooks, Mankiw’s book has seen frequent republication. Retailing for $175 on Amazon.com, “Principles of Economics” has come out in four editions since its first publication in 1998.

Economics chair James K. Stock is known for complaining in class about this practice, although not about “Principles of Economics” in particular.

“New editions are to a considerable extent simply another tool used by publishers and textbook authors to maintain their revenue stream, that is, to keep up prices,” Stock wrote in an e-mailed statement.

He said that while he requires his own book for his class, he encourages students to buy older editions and international copies, and said one student bought a Korean copy for 15 percent of the domestic list price.

“Some new editions really do make substantial intellectual improvements, but I would suggest that is the exception not the rule,” Stock said.

In certain fields, professors said, constant updating is necessary.

“The field of genetics is changing so fast,” said professor of biology Daniel L. Hartl, who assigns his book “Essential Genetics” for the introductory science course he co-teaches.

“Pick up the newspaper everyday, and you’ll see something new,” Hartl said. “If you pick up the scientific literature, it’s changing even faster.”

‘THE BEST WAY I KNOW’

Most professors teach their own books because of familiarity not profit, faculty members said.

Daniel T. Gilbert, who teaches Psychology 1: “Introduction to Psychology,” said that he believes when professors use textbooks they wrote in their classes, it allows students to understand the lectures better because both align.

“I try to teach the material in the best way I know,” Hartl said. “And I know intimately the textbook and so can make the lectures complimentary. Together [they] make a nice fit.”

Indeed, Mankiw asserts that “Principles of Economics” has been the bible of Harvard economics concentrators since before he took over “Economics 10.”

Martin S. Felstein ’61 taught the book while Mankiw was at work in Washington, the professor said.

“The textbook chose the professor, the professor didn’t choose the textbook,” Mankiw said.

–Staff writer Alissa M. D’Gama can be reached at adgama@fas.harvard.edu. –Staff writer Benjamin M. Jaffe can be reached at bjaffe@fas.harvard.edu.