While discussing the one book on his syllabus this semester, Professor Akhil Amar ’80 LAW ’84 explained that the title, “America’s Constitution: A Biography,” came about after some deliberation. “A Biography,” he said with a wink, is a disarming subtitle that often raises book sales. It was not the first time that a Yale professor has made a jab at his or her own published work.
In the past two decades, textbook prices have risen at twice the rate of inflation, according to a 2005 study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, giving students more reason to question professors’ motives for assigning books which they themselves have written. And while it seems like an obviously lucrative scheme — mandating dozens of students to buy a text written by the instructor — professors interviewed said they do not see it that way. In fact, many professors give away or give back their royalties, putting money back in their students’ pockets or benefiting charities in their respective field of study.
In 2005, Ian Ayres, a professor at Yale Law School, wrote an editorial in the New York Times lamenting the high prices of college textbooks. He wrote that he would give $11 to each of his students who purchased his book.
“That way, we will all know that I assigned the book for the right reason. The textbook isn’t included with my students’ tuition, but at least in my contracts class the royalty will be.”
It seems as though many Yale professors have followed his lead.
“I think that if you are a professor, your first responsibility is to your students,” said political science professor Thomas Pogge, who assigns his own book in “Ethics and International Affairs.” “And that includes thinking about the cost of the textbooks you are assigning.”
With so many accomplished professors at an institution that encourages personal research for scholarship, it is inevitable that many professors assign their own texts. Although the bookstores do not keep a roster of textbooks written by Yale professors, a quick stroll down the aisles reveals that many of the author and professor listings match.
Stephen Stearns, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, said he assigns his own book “Evolution” — which costs $59.95 for used copies and $79.95 for new copies — to students because “it remains the best condensation of the messages that I want to transmit.”
But Stearns explained that roughly 90 to 95 percent of his book royalties are from books that are not assigned in Yale courses.
School of Management professor Frank Fabozzi echoed Stearns’ sentiment, adding that, with approximately 20 students in his class, the royalties are hardly enough to warrant allure.
Still, regardless of how insignificant the royalties are, some professors are adamant that the money is given back to the student or donated to a charitable cause.
Professor John Grim, who teaches “Indigenous Religions and Ecology,” gives the royalties from his academic books to support Native American groups such as Crow Indian Reservation families and Little Big Horn College. Professor John Gaddis donates $2 per student to local New Haven charities.
Professor Craig Wright of “Listening to Music” explicitly writes on his syllabus that the royalties from his over-$100 textbook are given to the Neighborhood Music School, which provides music lessons and scholarships to New Haven students.
But for a smaller music history class he teaches, Wright pays each student $10 in cash, which is more than he makes per copy on royalties.
“For me, the issue is crystal clear,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Yale faculty should not benefit from the sale of its own textbooks to Yale students.”