Bookstore e-mail tests faculty ethics

Liz Bogut

An e-mail message offering University professors kickbacks for promoting an online textbook retailer in class has some University professors in a ethical and financial dilemma.
According to the Jan. 16 message, faculty members would receive kickbacks if they advised students to use a prominent online textbook retailer.
“It is inappropriate for faculty to promote any service that would provide a kickback,” said Judith Martin, a geography professor. “It underscores the impropriety of using University bookstores.”
The e-mail was sent by a student using a University account, Martin said. That student’s account privileges were revoked.
“The e-mail told faculty how great it would be if students used VarsityBooks.com,” Martin said.
The message went on to ask faculty members permission to come into their classrooms and advertise for the online retailer.
“The concern on the part of the faculty was that some might inadvertently pick up this deal … and start getting kickbacks, which could be a real ethical and legal problem,” said Gary Engstrand, coordinator for the University Senate.
In response to the message, Martin plans to send faculty an e-mail stating the inappropriateness of promoting any service that would provide faculty kickbacks.
Officials from University Bookstores and the online retailer could not be reached for comment.
In addition to the ethical and legal problems with a faculty member prompting students to buy books online, there are also financial factors involved.
When a student purchases a textbook written by a professor from an online service, the professor does not receive a set profit from the sale of each book.
“We can’t keep (the online retailer) from supplying to kids, but we can tell faculty members that they won’t receive anything from the books that kids buy,” said Fred Morrison, chairman of the Faculty Consultative Committee.
The e-mail prompted some faculty members to consider meeting with the bookstore to discuss the growing issue of the online book market.
“It might be necessary to meet with the bookstore and take a look at things. The whole model of business is significantly changing,” said Stephen Gudeman, anthropology professor. At least one professor in the anthropology department did promote the service during a lecture.
Martin said the bookstore is considering ways to serve students better to help compete with the online services.
For example, when a student registers online, the list of required texts for the course would immediately be available for the student.
The student would also be able to place the book order and the bookstore would prepare it for the student to pick up.
Online services deliver orders right to students’ doorsteps, although it could take up to three weeks.
Martin added that while she thinks the bookstore needs to have a sense of what the competition is like, it is working very hard to stay competitive.

Liz Bogut covers faculty and welcomes comments at [email protected] She can also be reached at 627-4070 ext. 3225.