Cal State Fullerton's Math Department Has More Problems Than Overpriced, Mandatory Textbooks

Bourget
Bourget
John Gilhooley

No Cal State Fullerton professor in recent memory ever needed a summer vacation more than Alain Bourget.

Bourget is the math professor whose refusal to use the required textbook for his Math 250B course, "Introduction to Linear Algebra and Differential Equations," to instead teach from one about $100 cheaper created headlines across the nation. He earned enmity from university officials but was celebrated by colleagues across the country for standing up for academic freedom while garnering the gratitude of many students who increasingly view higher education as a high-priced shakedown. In the comments section of one story about Bourget, it read, "The professor is a hero. The greedy pigs he has the misfortune to work under are scum."

Oh, you did know that the book Bourget was required to teach—Differential Equations and Linear Algebra, the one $100 more expensivewas written by Cal State Fullerton Math Department chairman Stephen Goode and vice chairman Scott Annin, right? That brought accusations of conflicts of interest and greed and, soon after, a frostiness in the department toward Bourget that extends to the present. "My colleagues basically don't talk to me," he says. "I've gotten used to it."

But a few months ago, the silence, not to mention the quasi-Orwellian signs that mysteriously appeared outside offices basically telling him to clear out, still stung him as well as his wife, Gulhan, who also teaches in the department. So when the school year ended, they decided to seek refuge for a few weeks in an environment more peaceful and placid, so the couple decided to vacation in—wait for it—Turkey.

"We didn't see the coup coming," Bourget says. "My wife is Turkish, and this was a family thing. I was sleeping when her sister knocked on our door and said there was something going on, a civil war. I couldn't sleep that night. It turned out it wasn't as bad as we thought; it could have been much worse."

He laughs as he talks about his Turkish surprise, but when the subject turns back to the new school year at Cal State Fullerton, any lightness in him fades. It's just a few days until the fall semester begins, and he's eating a hamburger across the street from campus. He looks tired, very tired, and the prospect of going back to school seems to hold no excitement for him.

Bourget doesn't think what he was asking to do was so noteworthy; he simply wanted to teach from a different book. And though his stand gave him hero status with some, it's clear he's uncomfortable with that. "My husband really is a quiet, nonconfrontational person," Gulhan says. "He didn't expect all this; his goal was not to get this attention. For him, he's just doing his job, doing what's best for his students. I'm proud that he did, but I know he's suffering."

When asked how he will handle the year ahead, especially when it comes to being shunned by those in his department, he begins, "I've learned how to live with it in a sense, you know . . ." And then he takes a long pause.

"Let me be very honest with you," he says. "If I could find a job somewhere else for me and my wife, I would move."

But he's here, eating a hamburger, resigned to the fact that it will be another year in Fullerton for the Bourgets. Before he goes back, though, there are a few things he wants to set straight, misnomers and misunderstandings about his intentions and ultimate goal. Likewise, there are others on campus who discovered this summer that Bourget's textbook stand continues to resonate across not only the country, but also the world, possibly to the long-term detriment of Cal State Fullerton.

Bourget (left) and McMillen: All they want to do is teach
Bourget (left) and McMillen: All they want to do is teach
John Gilhooley

A MUCH, MUCH BETTER BOOK
The most common tack for stories dealing with Bourget's stand was to put it in the context of exploding college costs, specifically textbooks, a near-$9 billion industry that has seen prices increase over the past couple of decades at EpiPen-like rates.

It's estimated that the typical American college student now spends a whopping $1,200 on textbooks, what amounts to nearly 15 percent of tuition at a traditional, four-year university. Things are no different at Cal State Fullerton, a part of a system originally and specifically designed to be accessible financially to families who traditionally would not be able to send their kids to college.

By the time Bourget said he preferred teaching from Gilbert Strang's Introduction to Linear Algebra materials, things had gotten so bad at Cal State Fullerton that stories about the professor were usually rife with details about students having to share textbooks or simply choosing for which classes they would actually buy books. One even had an extreme example of a young student who said she had taken to photographing required pages each week from textbooks in the bookstore and reading from her phone.

 

Amidst that, the story of a young professor acting to save his students money when he didn't have to, at the expense of his own professional career, was a gripping narrative that allowed publications to write about a serious issue in American education.

But the thing of it is, cost was not the reason Bourget chose the book. As he says now, the fact that the Strang book was less—significantly less—than the Goode text was merely a "happy coincidence." He would have still chosen the Strang book if it were the same price or a little more expensive than the Goode book.

"The fact that the book was cheaper was nice," Bourget says, "but the most important thing, the reason I wanted to teach it, is that it was a better book, and I don't mean a much better book, but a much, much better book."

That's not a controversial opinion. In the math world, Strang is something of a rock star, a dude who has been around forever (like Neil Young), who started teaching at MIT in 1959 (about the time Young was forming the Jades in Winnipeg). Much of his reputation has been made on his textbooks (he has published eight): Witness not only the fact that he was awarded the Chauvenet Prize, mathematics' highest award for writing, but also that math colleagues get absolutely frothy when talking about them.

In a review of the fourth edition of Introduction to Linear Algebra, George W. Cobb, professor emeritus of mathematics and statistics at Mount Holyoke College, shared a personal note he'd sent to Strang: "I've admired your book ever since the first edition came out. . . . It's hard to put into words how much I'm enjoying it. In 35 years, I've nearly always ended up feeling deeply disappointed with almost any textbook I've tried to teach from. However, I've had the good fortune to find two books I really admire. Yours is one of those two inspiring books."

Those sentiments are not unique, as the Strang book is often described as "seminal." Tyler McMillen, who Bourget describes as his "only friend in the [math] department," gets equally rapturous, saying, "Strang is the most beautiful text we have. No one in mathematics writes like Strang; people try, but it's a pale imitation."

Which brings us to Bourget's opinion of Goode and Annin's book, which he says offers students an abstract view of the subject without any applications, applications being critical because the majority of his students are engineers who need to actually apply what they are learning. "The way [Goode's] is written, it's just a book with a list of topics, one after each other," Bourget says. "They didn't make the effort to connect these topics; they didn't explain the subject so that students would get something out of it. You read Strang, and you feel like you're interacting with him—it's very lively. He has a perfect understanding of the subject; when you read his explanation of the subject, you feel, 'Oh, I get this.'

"I know there are people who say I did this because I was jealous [of Goode and Annin] or had something personally against them," he continues. "Look, at the beginning, I gave the book a chance. I used it 12 times. Twelve times! I really gave it a try, best I could. But at some point, it was enough. I felt like I was cheating my students. When you know there is something better out there, you've got to use it. It's like if I play tennis and you ask me to go play in tournaments, but you say I have to play with a wood racket. I might try one tournament, two tournaments, three tournaments, but at some point, I'm going to say, 'Enough!' I want to have the best possible tool to play with."

McMillen: Bourget’s sole supporter in the math department
McMillen: Bourget’s sole supporter in the math department
John Gilhooley

"SHUT UP OR GET OUT"
When you talk to people in authority at Cal State Fullerton, they are quick to point out that the textbook controversy produced University Policy Statement 300.011, "Faculty Selection of Instructional Materials." The policy, which runs four pages, is a pretty milquetoast document that says, among other things, that academic freedom is important, instructors should be aware of existing policies, and that when choosing textbooks, some consideration should be paid toward cost.

What is not addressed is the central point of Bourget's case: that there was a significant conflict of interest when the department's chairman and vice chairman required that their text—and only their text—be used for course 250B. "I was very disappointed because it did not address any of the conflict-of-interest issues; textbooks written by faculty were completely absent from the policy," Bourget says. "We were hoping there would be some amendments to make it stronger, hoping the university would come up with some solutions, but what we're left with is a policy that is completely useless because even if it did exist, we would still be in the same situation. In fact, having a policy now kind of validates the situation we're in."

 

It's important to note that Bourget never demanded that only the Strang book be taught in 250B. He simply wanted the option of using it while allowing other professors to choose the book they felt most comfortable with. While this is common for single, stand-alone courses, defenders of the university's math department point out that when a rather basic course such as linear algebra is taught in multiple sections by multiple teachers, it is critical everyone be learning from a common source.

"Allowing Dr. Bourget to use different texts would have meant I would presumably have had to extend the same option to all instructors of the course and, even more daunting, to all instructors of our other 20 coordinated courses [more than 150 sections]," Goode says. "This was a precedent I was not prepared to set without department input."

But it's a precedent throughout the university. Nancy Fitch, chairwoman of Cal State Fullerton's history department, said the practice of offering just one text in a multisectional class "ended a long time ago" in many departments. "[Professors] want to emphasize different things; they have different styles, and certain books fit better with certain styles," she says. "The book is not as important as the specific learning goals we have—that everyone has. The most important things are reaching those learning goals, not the book."

In fact, Fitch, who has been at the school 30 years, says that offering multiple books goes back a long way, that she was part of a contentious discussion regarding texts for a multisectional course in world civilization. "We decided on two textbooks that people could choose from, and that kind of made everyone happy," she recalls. "There was some tense meetings, but we got a solution. And that was in the early 1990s."

From the description of the Bourgets and McMillen, Cal State Fullerton's math department seems like your typical passive-aggressive family unwilling to have those uncomfortable conversations. Bourget says that meaningful conversations about offering an alternative text were always shot down immediately.

Reasons for this may go deeper than just not wanting to have a distasteful discussion and may get to the heart of the conflict of interest of having a department chairman and vice chairman offer their book as an exclusive text. "You have to understand, a lot of the authority of the chair is based on this book," McMillen says. "It's one of the things he points to, says, 'Yes, we've been using this for 30 years.' Whenever we tried to discuss the textbook in meetings, you could tell the moment you brought up the subject, people began to get very nervous. It's a very touchy subject. The feeling is if you say this is not the best book, you're criticizing a department practice for the last 30 years, as well as the chair and the [vice] chair themselves. Since most of the faculty have gone along with this, they all feel personally attacked if you speak up. "

Rather graphically supporting McMillen's point was that not long after Bourget's story came to light, there also came the sudden, silent appearance of printed signs on bulletin boards outside math professors' offices that read, "The Math Faculty Supports the CSUF Department of Mathematics"—which had a distinctly "If you're not with us, you're agin' us" feel to them.

"Those freaked me out the first time I saw them," Bourget says. "People were not willing to talk to me, but they were willing to put up a sign that basically said, 'Shut up or get out.'"

That sentiment was driven home again just about a week before fall classes began. Those teaching 250B were informed by the college bookstore that copies of the textbook [Goode-Annin (Fourth Edition)] were available. The problem with that is that the last time Cal State Fullerton's math department approved an edition was in 2014; it was the third, McMillen says, and there was no discussion of it, as policy dictates. Normally, instructors would find out months in advance if a new book was to be used to facilitate a discussion and, perhaps, an approval of the text.

"But they're violating their own policy here," McMillen says. "Our coordinator was supposed to make an announcement in a meeting to see if there was any objection to using this new book. The coordinator never made that announcement."

Who is the coordinator? Scott Annin.

Cal State Fullerton's Math Department Has More Problems Than Overpriced, Mandatory Textbooks
Gulhan Bourget

"MINING THE STUDENTS"
Now, you may be saying to yourself, "Well, that's too bad, but then again, it's just a math thing."

 

But that's not the way professors on the Cal State Fullerton campus see it. Many of them either have contacted Bourget to offer support or signed statements doing so. Many feel that forcing students to spend double for a textbook when a more than suitable—many would argue superior—option is available is a horrible message to send to students.

"The nature of the math department problem is that it reflects the larger pervading attitude that students are just ATM cash cows for the university," said one professor, who asked to not be identified since he or she is in a position of authority. "I'm concerned that it looks like financial gain was the ultimate determinant, that if sound academic policy was at work, there would have been an alternative book. What we've been left with instead is a horrible conflict of interest that reinforces the perception that the faculty are just mining the students for money."

Many professors have come face-to-face with rather angry reactions off campus from peers and colleagues. Several interviewed for this story say they basically hear the same question: "What the hell is going on over there?" (None of them wished to be quoted.) Some of the most pointed/angry responses have come from colleagues at other Cal State institutions who believe that l'affair Fullerton reinforces the perception that the entire system is some sort of simple-minded stepchild to its UC counterpart.

Fitch told the Academic Senate, of which she is a member, that she was ashamed to be approached at a conference in Chicago by academics from all over the country and the world who asked her, "'You're from Cal State Fullerton? That's the school where they tell you what book to use, right?' I kept telling them that's not the practice in my department, but I could tell [the Bourget story] had made us look pretty bad."

But any anger or embarrassment has now been effectively replaced with a concern that the incident could have long-term effects on Cal State Fullerton's ability to attract top-flight talent. Universities compete for superstar professors in the same way they go after superstar athletes: aggressively, with no expenses spared. Other universities will likely bring up the textbook debacle if they are competing with Fullerton for a prized instructor.

"We already have a few strikes against us," Fitch says. "We have high teaching loads, and the cost of living here is high, so if someone says, 'Oh, Fullerton, they won't let you teach what you want,' that's just another strike against us."

Bourget has a particularly two-strikes-against-him look as he finishes his burger. He's not hopeful anything will change. Well, not at Cal State Fullerton, not any time soon. Down the road at UC Irvine, that school's Academic Senate, clearly reacting to Bourget's case, recommended that faculty members forgo any profits they derive from assigning their students textbooks or other course materials they've produced.

But no such recommendation has been made at Cal State Fullerton, and Bourget doesn't expect one to be made. Maybe it's because of the vibe he gets from his math colleagues, which is no vibe—maybe because he's seen and heard any attempt to just talk about solutions to a seeming conflict of interest is met with immediate calls to order.

Or maybe he thinks things won't change this year because of what happened right at the end of last year. It was then, during finals, that Cal State Fullerton announced its Outstanding Professor Award. The winner? Scott Annin.


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