The Arizona Desert Lamp

ASUA Senate Report, 28 October 2009

Posted in Campus, Politics, Textbooks by Evan Lisull on 29 October 2009

Agenda available here. It’s a long one, so get comfortable:

1. Consent Agenda. We’re working on getting the official document, but there were some interesting issues pertaining to the ever-mysterious club funding process. Mock Trial withdrew their third request of the year, as they didn’t want to endanger their funding requests for next semester. Fostering & Achieving Cultural Equity and Sensitivity (FACES) was denied a request for $39, since the items requested were personal items (i.e. pencils). The Social Justice League (the folks that required $1600 to emulate homelessness) received funds to rent space on the Mall and to market their event, but were denied funding for food. Students for Justice in Palestine received somewhere in the neighborhood of $1,190 to pay for plane tickets to an event in Hampshire College, in Amherst, MA.

2. OASIS Bystanders. Sen. Quillin remarked, “All of my experiences with OASIS have been amazing,” and while my experiences have only been secondary and come word-of-mouth, I have to second this sentiment. Without getting into details, OASIS proved to be a godsend to a close friend facing some serious trouble, and its existence is an overall good for this university.

That having been said, their latest idea threatens to muddle their mission, turning an admirable cause into a nannying arm of Student Health. First, though, their mission statement:

The Oasis Program was established to provide a variety of services to UA students, staff, and faculty (men, women, and transgendered persons) who are impacted by sexual assault, relationship violence, and stalking. The Oasis Program is a unit of Campus Health Service and is an active partner with Tucson community service agencies. Together with our campus and community partners we strive to provide coordinated responses to, and work toward the prevention of, all forms of interpersonal violence.

In effect, the program helps women deal with sexual assault, and provides self-defense classes and other similar programs to this end; I suspect that the interpersonal violence line was added to generalize gender. What OASIS does not does not do is deal with other health issues that don’t involve “interpersonal violence” – until today’s introduction of the OASIS Bystander Program. This program, according to the presenter, is based off the STEP UP program run by UA Athletics:

STEP UP! is a prosocial behavior and bystander intervention program that educates students to be proactive in helping others.

A survey at three Universities (The University of Arizona, University of California, Riverside and University of Virginia), revealed that students are encountering multiple situations where bystander intervention would be appropriate including, among other things, alcohol abuse, hazing, eating disorders, sexual assault and discrimination. Almost 90% stated a problem could have been avoided with intervention and up to 85% of the student-athletes indicated they would like to learn skills to intervene. The bottom line is that many, if not most, unfortunate results are PREVENTABLE.

Similarly, OASIS Bystanders will receive 90-minute training sessions, teaching them how to act in the face of such “anti-social” behaviors. In addition to questions like, “Are there things I should be doing to help my friend who was recently raped?”, OASIS Bystanders will also learn how to answer questions like, “What do you do if you see someone really intoxicated? Do you call for help?” They will also offer sixty minute presentations to groups on issues like bullying, hazing, drinking, and eating disorders.

The presentation cited the “success” of STEP UP, but its hard to see any manifestation of this outside of administrative fauxtistics and collection of personal anecdotes (which go so far as to withhold the name of the athletes cited – what is this, Witness Protection?); if I remember correctly, it was one of our more famous athletes that could have used a bit of “intervention” of his own.

Yet worse than this is the effect that the Bystander program will have in distracting OASIS from its more important role in preventing sexual assault, and providing resources for its victims. OASIS has been admirable in honing in on this issue, and there’s absolutely no reason to think that there is need for greater focus elsewhere; Campus Health already caters to that.

There are ways to tailor this program to make it better hew to the mission of OASIS. The basic formula could be kept, but re-tailored with its main focus. In fact, the program could be used to reach out to males, a group traditionally and unfortunately uninvolved in such programs. The formation of a ‘Teal Shirts” division to enforce sexual assault laws might raise up the question of whether “good fascism” exists, but OASIS could train men to watch for examples of sexual assault, and encourage them to intervene. This might lead to more “interpersonal violence” overall, but I hope it is not to controversial to say that old-fashioned fights are preferable to domestic violence.

At any rate, the first information meeting/trial run will take place on November 4, 10 AM, on the third floor of the campus health building. Your author won’t be able to make it, but citizen journalism is always encouraged – so go.

3. Textbook Commitment Resolution. One might think that the ASUA Senate would start a discussion on textbook prices by wondering about the potential conflicts of interest in deriving almost forty percent of their total revenues from the ASUA Bookstore. Instead, the Senate presented a resolution [PDF] of this year’s ineffectual textbook program, led by ASA and based on a letter drafted by President Nagata (so that‘s why he hasn’t responded!):

UNDERSTANDING the rising cost of education at the University of Arizona, the Associated Students of the University of Arizona are asking a commitment from university faculty and department heads in regard to textbooks, with the knowledge that textbooks are a substantial associated cost in relation to attendance;

It’s a bit misguided to focus on textbooks in the context of overall rising costs of college education. Here, for example, is a chart depicting the cost estimates for an in-state student attending the UA, courtesy of the Office of Financial Aid:

Cost of UA Education, In-State

It’s not quite clear why travel is so high for in-state students – in fact, the estimate is almost $1,000 higher than the estimate for out-of-state students. Do in-state kids go back home that often? This is all incidental to the point that books aren’t really that great a cost, relative to other educational inputs (4.9 percent). It’s even less of a factor for out-of-state students:

Cost of UA Education, Out-of-State

The underlying data, with cool interactive graphs, can be had here. Rather than being a “substantial associated cost,” the real problem with textbooks is their relative expense – in layman’s terms, textbooks seem more expensive than they should be. Some of this is also a result of lacking market knowledge – hopefully, all students have bought books before, and know how much a “good” book costs. But for many, paying for housing is the first proper rent payment of their sentient lives, and tuition is a unique event. Not only are textbooks more expensive than average books, but they are also of lower quality (speaking in aggregate) – poorly written, uninformative, and filled with incidental material unrelated to the class.

Even though they don’t properly diagnose the problem, the resolution does hint at a better approach than years’ past:

UNDERSTANDING that it is incontrovertibly within their [the faculty and department heads’] power to aid and alleviate some portion of students’ financial burdens in relation to textbook costs

This site made such an observation in its second post ever, but it’s good to ASA moving in this general direction.  Here is what ASA/ASUA propose to do:

WHEREAS the Associated Students of the University of Arizona implore university faculty members to utilize textbooks for consecutive academic years, and within this commitment will allow said textbook to be enrolled within the textbook rental program.

UNDERSTANDING the faculty member or department head will also enter into said commitment with the agreement that faculty members will also submit textbook titles to the University of Arizona BookStores before the adoption from due dates preventing unnecessary costs of acquisition past that date;

The first clause basically means that instructors have to commit to using textbooks for two academic years in a row, and enroll in the rental program. The second clause is referring to an issue from the bookstore’s perspective: when professors submit their book requests beyond a certain deadline, fees are assessed, and the costs are passed onto purchasing students. There’s another clause asserting that textbooks are a “significant portion” of education costs, and then the operative clause:

THEREFORE this body endorses and advocates this textbook commitment campaign with the ultimate goal of lowering textbook costs for students and alleviate unneeded financial burden.

Sen. Quillin, who introduced and drafted the resolution, described it as “more of an awareness campaign,” but it’s even weaker than that. ASA is still a program under the control of ASUA – President Nagata appoints the entirety of the UA delegation; and in this case, directly inspired the campaign. If ASA were to do something contrary to Senate wishes, presumably they would make this known, and the policy would be modified. This resolution is basically one arm of ASUA endorsing the actions of another, an event that occurs countless times when the Senate offers “support” for ZonaZoo or a percentage night at La Salsa.

The program is a step in the right direction, but ironically enough it tries to do too much by sanctioning the professors. Instead, ASUA should revive that old canard of transparency, and apply it to the problem of textbooks. The program cites the problems caused by professors turning in their book requests too late – why not release a list of the professors who do so? Once that information is out in public, professors will be forced to defend their policies. If the professors have genuine reason for their expensive textbooks, then that will be apparent. If they don’t, such disclosure should serve as the pressure necessary to affect real shifts. In fact, the Associated Students Book Store has enough information to let us know the textbook prices of each and every class offered at the UA. It has historical data, too. There is nothing better that the Associated Students of the UA could do to have a long-term, genuine impact on textbook prices than releasing this information. More information will lead to more informed customers, both with students looking for classes and professors looking for books.

Another issue, relating to information, concerns professor involvement. Sens. Weingartner and Daniel Wallace asked how many faculty members were contacted before drafting this resolution/letter; and while the answers varied between one and three, they were are centered on how many Faculty Senate members were/should be contacted. This is the wrong approach, though – if you want to understand how a market works, you need to start at the bottom. Focusing on quantity, rather than administrative quality, reveals a larger sample of textbook approaches – and it might be argued that the faculty involved in Senate are less likely to pursue unconventional paths.

Instead, we get Sen. Quillin asserting in his report that the resolution is a “”feasible and tangible way to make a difference in the cost of higher education.” Usually, ‘tangible’ is referred to something real, an ill-fitting term for something like textbooks, where exactly no evidence has been presented showing the efficacy of its programs. Amusingly enough, ASA’s page on textbooks includes this excerpt:

In 2008 ASA worked to pass legislation that required textbook publishers to disclose their prices to professors.  Our research showed that this was one of the most effective ways to lower the cost of textbooks for students.

Though covering this beat for over a year (two, if you count the Wildcat), the author had no idea that ASA had a research arm! Perhaps these researchers would care to reveal themselves? Are there other reports, analyses, or even data? Could this specific ‘research’ be presented with the imminent media blitz surrounding the new textbook campaign? We wait in earnest, but on a serious note – if this research exists, please release it now, so we can stop making a joke out of it.

4. Club Triathlon/Senate Project Funding. What is the Club Triathlon? As it turns out, it’s not athletic, and there’s nothing tripartite about it. The program, brought to the Senate floor by Sen. Stephen Wallace the Elder, is a project of ASUA Community Development, and involves providing incentives to clubs to participate in volunteering. Don’t clubs already do a lot of philanthropy work, as Sen. Quillin pointed out? Yes, but let’s not get distracted here. The clubs are given a list of philanthropies that, according to Sen. S. Wallace, “we’d like them to participate in.” Suppose you want to volunteer at a non-listed philanthropy – do those hours count? Sen. S. Wallace doesn’t say, but the prospects aren’t promising.

A competition will commence between the twenty clubs (out of  “near 500” clubs = 4%+ of total clubs), who will keep track of all the hours volunteered by their members at the pre-approved charities. The competition will continue for an indeterminate period of time, at which point winners will be announced. The club with the most “volunteer credits” will receive $1,000; the second-place club will receive a $250 clothing installment from club funding; and the third place club will receive a catered event courtesy of ASUA.

So why is Sen. S. Wallace coming to the Senate for this funding? After all, Community Development is an arm of Programs and Services, and received $4,816 (including stipends) in the budget. Well, according to Sen. S. Wallace, this is a Senate project – even though he’s acting “in collaboration” on a event directly sponsored by an arm of Programs & Services. And according to Administrative Vice President Ziccarelli (the executive in charge of P&S), this was an “unforeseen event,” meaning that it wasn’t budgeted for.

Wait – “unforeseen event” sounds familiar. Isn’t that exactly the sort of expense that was supposed to be covered by the executive operations accounts? Sen. Daniel Wallace the Younger brought this issue up yet again, assuming in vain that the defense was more than a rhetorical trick to scam the Senate out of control over the ASUA purse. Instead, $500 came directly from Club Funding (which is open to all clubs, rather than just the twenty that were able to field a team in this ‘triathlon’); $250 came from Community Development, raised through percentage nights and sponsorships; and the final $250 is supposed to come from the Senate. Exactly $0 are coming from the executive operations accounts.

This is OK, though – the money is going to Sen. Stephen Wallace’s “senate project,” even though the project is being primarily carried out by a division of Programs & Services. Whatever. So what is the money going towards? It’s going to the prize, and it’s also going to running the competition. Unlike Sen. Weingartner, Sen. S. Wallace didn’t itemize the spending request, so it’s unclear exactly where this money will end up. Yet if it is being devoted entirely to the prize, this raises the question – why not just reduce the prize to $750?

Last year, the vote approving this spending would have been unanimous, so there’s solace in that. Unfortunately, the spending still passed, 5-3 with two abstentions. The complete vote breakdown:











Other notes (but actually somewhat important this time):

SSFAB Shenanigans. It should come as no surprise that the vice-chair of the SSF Board is Ryan Klenke – Freshman Class Council Alum, former ASUA Senate candidate, and current Diversity Director. It should be somewhat surprising that the board worked on a “program alteration request” relating to the Women’s Resource Center – and rarely are these “alterations” needed to reduce the allocated amount. More on this as soon as we can get information.

Freshman Fee. As if the SSF wasn’t enough anti-democracy for one day, Sen. Yamaguchi had to drop the bombshell that the Freshman Fee allocation process will be run by the Freshman Class Council. Not only does this give allocation power to a body whose previous main role was designing and requesting funding for a Homecoming float, but it also gives the power to the wrong people. The application for the council this year was due September 4 – literally two weeks after the start of classes, and long before any worthwhile understanding of the university was realized. Such a grant of power simply codifies the de facto elite class.

Student Regent Selection. As per student government tradition, the “student regent” is being selected in a manner that completely excludes any student body input. So far, we don’t even know the names of the candidates, but hopefully the pledge for transparency will extend to this process as well.

But, hey, don’t let this report get you down – after all, it’s your student government!

The Oasis Program was established to provide a variety of services to UA students, staff, and faculty (men, women, and transgendered persons) who are impacted by sexual assault, relationship violence, and stalking. The Oasis Program is a unit of Campus Health Service and is an active partner with Tucson community service agencies. Together with our campus and community partners we strive to provide coordinated responses to, and work toward the prevention of, all forms of interpersonal violence.

Shopping for textbooks at the Creative Commons

Posted in Campus, Textbooks by Evan Lisull on 28 September 2009

Few issues are more seemingly intractable than textbooks, but the state of Florida has come up with something that sounds pretty nifty. From Inside Higher Ed:

The University Press of Florida, partnering with a state-supported digital library called The Orange Grove, is building an online catalog that the two groups hope will dramatically ease the cost burden on students purchasing textbooks. In addition to allowing students to download textbooks in the digital library for free, the system will also permit them to order a custom printed copy of any book for no more than half the cost of the traditionally printed edition.

The library, which now features fewer than 100 titles, includes only those materials licensed through Creative Commons, a nonprofit organization that allows authors to grant copyright permission to their works. The textbooks may have been created as open source documents from the start, or they could be books that were once released by a commercial publisher that has ceased printing editions. Under preexisting agreements, authors will collect royalties only for the printed editions of their work — not the downloaded copies.

While the library features 89 titles now, the five-year goal is to supply textbooks suitable for all of the general education courses offered in Florida’s colleges and universities. There is no discussion of mandating that professors use the library’s textbooks, although organizers are already brainstorming ways to make the library more appealing.

The printing option is key here, providing an alternative to 20-hour daily screen exposure. (Perhaps they’ll get an Espresso Machine?) Professors, perhaps not surprisingly, are opposed:

As appealing as reduced textbook costs sound, there are potential red flags for faculty members, according to Jack Mecholsky, chair of the University of Florida’s Faculty Senate. If the state amasses a library of free books selected without faculty input, it may be only a matter of time before some lawmaker with a populist streak tries to mandate that faculty assign only those books in their classes, Mecholsky said.

“That’s the danger, and I could see that happening,” said Mecholsky, a professor of materials science and engineering. “What happens [when lawmakers intrude] is they have just made an academic decision that that textbook is right for all professors and all students taking that course, and that’s wrong.”

These fears shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand, but contra Kael, there really is a totemic attachment to books that grants professors more leeway here than elsewhere. Simply waving one’s hands and crying out “Don’t ban books!” is usually enough to prevent even acolytes of the Kingfish from imposing such a requirement. Further, the expanding number (and increasing quality) of books offered through Creative Commons helps to mitigate the fear that this will somehow be extremely limiting and possibly dangerous (only books teaching creationism can be accessed through the library, etc.)

Yet while professors should be able to choose the books that they want to teach, outsiders should also be able to express their doubts in the selection. Deference is certainly due, but consider this hyperbolic hypothetical: an Intro to Physics teacher required her students to purchase five separate textbooks, in order to give them a more “well-rounded” view of the subjects at hand. Readings were assigned from each book, depending on the teacher’s preference. This results in a $750 book cost for the class. Should students, fellow faculty members, administrators, and parents be able to ask the professor to justify their selection? Or are there really no limits on the prerogative to book assignments?

Obviously, this example is a caricature, but I suspect that some professors/instructors opt to use the same textbook year after year, price hikes due to new editions be damned, because it’s the easy way out. Why bother rewriting the test for a new, cheaper book when you’ve already got the old one ready to go? There’s a good side to this, though – the consistency in teaching that derives from this prevents the class from wasting time as the instructor gets acclimatized to the new book.

It’s a reasonable debate – but such a debate does not currently exist. Instead, barrels of pabulum are spent expressing dismay at the “state of textbook prices,” launching diatribes against “Big Textbook,” and generally accomplishing nothing. A general inquiry into textbook usage – to be done on a campus-by-campus basis – is the better approach. It’s not a perfect science, but one could start by looking at the cost of textbooks for each ENG 101, 103, and 109 courses. Since these classes are academically the same, but vary widely in instructors, there are certainly some expensive sections and some inexpensive sections. Instructors – who are second to none in their support of dialogue and free exchange – who require expensive books should justify their decisions publicly, while instructors assigning readings that are inexpensive can offer tips that will hopefully be adopted by others.

For many, the answer is simply, “There’s no other choice.” Florida, however, is offering that choice – and it will be interesting to see what happens to textbook costs in Gainesville as a result.

Textbook Season

Posted in Campus, Textbooks by Evan Lisull on 24 August 2008

The school year is just about to get under way, which means that it’s high time for some griping over the price of textbooks. Cue the Wildcat:

Textbooks are not yet printed on the backs of hundred dollar bills, but they’re still expensive. The UA Web site’s estimated cost of attendance places books and supplies at $1,000 per academic year.
That holds true just about everywhere. The national average that students spend on textbooks is $995 per year, Farias said.

Tuition, housing and food are still more expensive than textbooks, according to the estimated cost of attendance. But after paying for those basics, forking over $500 a semester can be a dagger.

While the cost is certainly a factor, an even more important factor is the capriciousness of the market; there is no reason why this should be such an onerous cost. There’s a personal anecdote that I think perfectly illustrates the inanity of the college book market. This past spring, I was doing my book shopping online I started with my POL 341 class:

Not unreasonable, but not cheap either. I went over Amazon’s Marketplace (which I’ve found to have the best deals), just to see how much I could save. The first entry looked like this:

Thus, the bookstore was selling this book to the general at a third of the price that it was offering to the students it supposedly serves. It’s absolutely inexplicable, like many of the things that go down at the bookstore.

A few random thoughts about the textbook situation:

1. There really are alternatives out there; use them. Sometimes, it’s not very easy, and usually it involves several days of shipping or shady and uncommunicative dealers. But if you’re relatively organized, and have a bit of credit, you can save in the hundreds. Buy older versions of textbooks, since the differences are slim to nil. Ultimately, this comes back to the buyer; spending hundreds of dollars at the bookstore sends a much stronger message than a whiny screed after the fact. If you think that the bookstore is over-priced, then vote with your dollar and choose an alternative.

2. Professors play a role as well. Ultimately, it is the doctors and lecturers who chose the books that are taught. This is often ignored, and professors are painted as victims of evil, conniving Textbook Industry (Big Book?). Yet it’s inane to suggest that doctorates are being fooled by half-educated salesmen. Do they mean to suggest that they really don’t understand how much of any increase in price that the new edition will cost? Are the elite of the ivory tower oblivious to the cost of CDs and other nifty gadgets that they’ll use once, maybe? Professors need to be asked why they are using these new books, when the old texts were more than sufficient.

The faculty appear to be intransigent on the issue, though. From last year:

Wanda Howell, faculty chair and professor of nutritional sciences, stressed the importance of the resolution and said it couldn’t be delayed.

“We need to vote on this today,” she said. “No part of this bill can be construed as limiting the choice of textbooks by faculty.”

3. Decentralize the problem. Different departments have different issues with textbooks. The science departments are much more likely to deal with bundled software books than the social science majors. The supply issues for Gen Ed courses are much more pertinent than for upper-level classes within the majors.

Each department should play a role in its own book provisions, and should be free to establish, say, a sociology library with all the books available for a renters’ fee. The bookstore probably has a good reason to buy up books for Gen Ed classes, but these classes should in turn be taught with less expensive, and more readily available, books. Physics, chemistry, and similar departments should have a serious conversation about how nifty they want their “bundled” books to be, and should implement department-wide policy on the measure.

In an economics class I took last semester, the professor offered to rent out from a collection of books he had for a simple fee of $10, which would be paid back should the student choose to return the book. By building up this collection, the professor essentially reduced the textbook problem to nothing.

This is just one possible solution. Professors can provide less book-centric classes, making use of the plethora of online resources to teach. Ultimately, though, the only way textbook prices will come down is through bottom-up innovation at the classroom level, rather than ineffective mandates from the state legislature.