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I am tenured faculty at a state university in the US. Our campus bookstore is not run by the university; instead, it is owned and operated by a large, well-known corporation, and has a contractual agreement with the university to "be the official bookstore" and to operate in the center of campus.

Over the years, I have grown increasingly frustrated by the poor service offered by the bookstore. To name only the problems I've encountered this fall:

  • A full week into classes, many of my students have not yet been able to obtain their books. Neither they nor I have been told when their books will be ready; bookstore staff are not answering their email, and their phone goes straight to a recording.

  • A complaint on their Facebook page reads: "Please get more people working the registers, kids are waiting in line shoulder to shoulder with others for hours because there’s only one person working the register!" This, in the middle of a deadly pandemic!

My question is this: As a faculty member, do I have any ability to coerce them to improve their service? For example, if I were to join the relevant Faculty Senate committee, and pester a bunch of people in my university's administration, would I be able to bring about change? (And, if so, what would be the best way to proceed?). Or, would I merely be driving myself crazy?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Please read this FAQ before posting another comment. Finally: this question asks for specific information that only those familiar with high-level university administration can provide; this is not a question for common sense solutions. – cag51 Aug 29 at 22:08

10 Answers 10

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While there may be some excuses this fall (2020) in the middle of a pandemic that supply chains for books are messed up (as they are for many other things), here are a few things that you could do.

  1. Choose textbooks and materials that are readily available through other outlets, even suggesting places they can be found. (Neither of my kids generally buy their textbooks from the campus bookstore anymore - just easier to order from the comfort of their dorm/apartment and have them show up in a day or two.)

  2. Prepare and teach your course such that any of several recent editions of the textbook could be used. This way it will be easier for students to find a used copy that would still apply. (One of the organic chemistry profs at the local university does this - organic chemistry texts new are ~$400, used are ~$50 since new editions come out nearly yearly in an attempt by the textbook publishers to destroy the used market.)

  3. Provide much of the material yourself in the form of lecture notes, with pointers to material on reserve at the library (wait, is that a thing anymore?).

  4. Work with your department to apply these suggestions across more classes. Talk to colleagues in other departments as well. They likely have similar frustrations.

In summary, I think local, then grassroots, efforts are likely to be more impactful than trying to fight city hall.

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    Strongly agree on picking materials that are available through other outlets. – Patricia Shanahan Aug 27 at 18:37
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    Thanks for this, I appreciate it. For sections where I'm the only instructor, and get to choose the book, I definitely do this -- for example, the book for my other class can be bought for less than $10 online (and that's why I chose it). Also, last week I volunteered to serve on our calculus textbook selection committee, and I intend to fully investigate OER options. For the moment, I'm stuck with a crappy situation: we are using one of those "custom editions", together with some bundled software, and if students buy elsewhere they have to pay twice as much. – academic Aug 27 at 19:01
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    Good answer. One other suggestion: Use or write open source/open access text books. – Richard Erickson Aug 27 at 21:19
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    Denying the bookshop business and profit is probably the best way to affect change. They'll be pressured to improve their service if students stop buying their books. – Crazymoomin Aug 28 at 10:54
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    @academic Why can they only use one piece of software? (If it's Autograph – I know it's great, but Geogebra Classic 5 can do everything it can apart from that fancy arrows mode.) If it's possible, consider finding a free alternative; then they won't need to buy the custom edition. – wizzwizz4 Aug 28 at 22:13
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As a faculty member, do I have any ability to coerce them to improve their service?

I wouldn’t use the word “coerce”, since in the literal sense of what you are asking, no, you can’t coerce anyone to do anything. But if things are as bad as you describe, you certainly ought to have the ability to effect change, provided you are willing to make a substantial commitment of time and effort, and spearhead and champion a multi-year (probably) effort to raise awareness of the problem, recruit allies, and build up support for your cause.

After all, determined individuals have done much greater things than improve service at a local bookstore, starting popular movements that led to much bigger changes at the city, national, or international levels. If Malala Yusafzai can win a Nobel Peace Prize at 17 for her activism for human rights and education of women and children, and Greta Thunberg can become an international icon for her climate and environmental advocacy, it does not seem a stretch to imagine that you too can be an agent of change.

But just joining a senate committee by itself won’t achieve anything. You have to be willing to work much harder than that and at a much broader level. You probably will encounter resistance due to administrators’ incompetence, indifference, and maybe even outright corruption. So to succeed, I think the key will be to raise a massive level of support from faculty and students that will leave decision makers with no choice about the need for reform. Some obvious steps are to gather data, document the extent of the problem, and then work on communicating what you know in the most persuasive way you can to as many people as possible, through blogs, social media, emails, personal conversations, or any other way you can think of.

Good luck! Note that this answer, and your question, are opinion-based, and thus in my opinion the question is not answerable to the standards usually expected on academia.se. But I hope these thoughts are still helpful in a modest way.

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    Yes, the good old "preferred supplier" problem. That's usually a turnaround time of several years to get changed if one is persistent (yes, been there, done that, multiple times). Going through the students is probably your best bet. I do not think that the comparison with Climate Change or Female Education is warranted. These are already global issues with visibility and activist structure. Trying to get an apathetic administration to change a (for them) "minor" nuisance is quite a different ballpark of difficulty (and I am only half-joking). Still +1 for the overall advice. – Captain Emacs Aug 28 at 10:59
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    @CaptainEmacs if you’ve been there and done that multiple times, I bet OP would appreciate an answer telling about your experiences in more detail. I personally would also be quite interested in this, so you have a promise of at least one guaranteed upvote. – Dan Romik Aug 28 at 14:55
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    It's very convoluted and not easily generalizable and not suitable for an answer. To be successful, one needs to very precisely understand the structure of your institution and its dynamics; respecting how it is as opposed to how one wants it to be. Even with everything being above water, good faith mechanisms/people can drastically obstruct productive work. You need to seek to align these mechanisms with your productive goals. I cannot go into more detail. Even so, it requires a reptilian level of patience. To change things like that take a long time, there are no quick fixes. – Captain Emacs Aug 28 at 16:00
  • Thanks for this. I'm not sure that I dare to believe that, if Malala Yusafzai or Greta Thunberg can do it, so can I. But I appreciate your answer! – academic Aug 29 at 19:02
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Having repeatedly attempted in less chaotic times to replace the needlessly expensive "popular" texts with at-cost in-house notes for calculus... I have the impression that many faculty don't care about cost-to-students. Second, from the top down, as far as I can tell, the university makes decisions about bookstores without any info about what faculty or students want. They will occasionally appear to try to accommodate, but appearance is not substance.

Yes, I'd predict that you'd mostly just be driving yourself crazy with frustration by being on faculty committees or whatever, to try to influence the central administration, unless in your univ (unlike mine, sadly) the faculty senate actually has power. Here, about bookstores, health plans, and most other things, we definitely do not, and neither do students.

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Assign Open Educational Resources instead of proprietary textbooks. This will bring about the end of your campus bookstore. Open educational resources are free, redistributable, and modifiable. They eliminate all the problems with campus bookstores.

Examples: https://openstax.org/subjects/view-all

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    +1 Came here to say the same thing. I think this answer could be expanded/improved a bit by: (1) highlighting strategically that it will be easier to affect change locally on the department level than with university admin/outside contractors, and (2) linking directly to the fine OpenStax calculus text: openstax.org/details/books/calculus-volume-1 – Daniel R. Collins Aug 28 at 13:14
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It seems that the students are already complaining about the situation on facebook, but maybe moving those complaints to twitter and adding mentions to state representatives (since it is a state school) might be enough to shame the bookstore into doing better.

Faculty and students can also can complain to their department chair, dean or provost. There is no need to be a member of a senate committee.

Having said that, vendors have been given a lot of leeway during the pandemic, so there is a chance the university and bookstore will simply say "Sorry, we are doing the best we can." (See for example the story about food in NYU dorms: https://abc7ny.com/nyu-food-new-york-university-dorm-coronavirus/6382186/)

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A full week into classes, many of my students have not yet been able to obtain their books.

This happens at my campus too. It's not likely to change, because it's an inventory management/cash flow strategy for the bookstore. Come October, they don't want to be left holding any unsold books. Those books represent a huge cash outlay, and shipping them back to the publisher costs money and uses labor. Many faculty don't assign any work from the book for the first week, so the bookstore finds it convenient to act as if all classes are that way. Some students are shopping for classes, so the store wants to take their returns and sell them to other students in the second week.

My question is this: As a faculty member, do I have any ability to coerce them to improve their service? For example, if I were to join the relevant Faculty Senate committee, and pester a bunch of people in my university's administration, would I be able to bring about change?

Not likely. Your campus outsourced this function for budgetary and administrative reasons. In particular, if your campus workforce is unionized, then outsourcing the bookstore lets them avoid paying union workers, whose wages and benefits are expensive. Because it's outsourced, they can't directly control the store's operations, and they outsourced precisely because they didn't want to control them.

Although this issue has both educational and management aspects, it's primarily a management issue that happens to impact education. Your faculty senate only deals with professional and educational issues. Its job isn't to get involved in the operation of the campus. Sometimes a faculty senate does succeed with an expansive interpretation of its mandate, but in my experience that gains sufficient momentum only when it's an issue involving wages, benefits, or working conditions, and they can act in concert with a faculty union.

You do have some control over this at the individual level. You can use open educational resources. Although I'm an OER enthusiast and use them exclusively in all my classes, you should not be under the illusion, as suggested by some other answers, that this will cause a prairie fire of resistance that will fix the whole problem. Most faculty want the convenience of the publisher's ancillaries, including the test bank, etc., that they already have set up and are used to. Few faculty care at all about either the price or the didactic quality of texts. Most will express attitudes that these are irrelevant: -- that the students wont buy the book anyway, or won't read it, or will use it only as a supplement to the prof's own (superlative) lectures.

Keep in mind also that that there are likely to be campus financial interests involved. E.g., on my campus, the bookstore has a 37% markup (which they prefer to describe as 27% of the retail price), and any profit goes to sports teams. And although I haven't seen any reliable evidence of direct cash kickbacks to faculty, it is indeed common with the big-bucks freshman survey texts that there will be "soft" kickbacks. E.g., on my campus, the publisher of the freshman calculus text invites faculty on trips to Florida to meet the author.

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You don't have the ability to impact how the bookstore does business, but you certainly have the ability to impact the students' reliance on the book store.

On your syllabus, and on your course website, you should plainly show the course materials that the students need for your course. If there is good open-access material that would serve your purpose, you should consider using it, but even if there isn't, or for some reason you don't like the open access model (and I have no urge to enter that debate), this gives the students an opportunity to purchase their materials somewhere other than the bookstore. Be VERY careful about actually linking or recommending alternative and cheaper commercial sites, though, as that likely violates the school's contract with the vendor. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out, though, that textbooks can be found at much lower cost than the campus bookstore, whether a student is purchasing new, used, or wants to rent.

Keep in mind that there may be some actual benefits to bookstore services. For example, they may take purchase orders from the school, or somehow interact with the bursar's offices for students who might need to purchase their books through financial aid. They remove the excuse for students claiming "I couldn't buy the book" (assuming the staff is doing their job, unlike your case). There's probably another reason or three that I'm sure you'll figure out if the bookstore decides it can no longer profitably operate on your campus and leaves.

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What happened to good old fashioned campus activism to promote change? I guess it’s not the 60s any more, but take a lesson from ‘60s activists’ playbook when conditions were unacceptable and change was slow in coming:

  • Organize with like-minded individuals
  • Prepare a list of demands of the book store and publicize the demands
  • Find a charismatic, telegenic spokesperson among the dissatisfied students
  • Boycott the store
  • Picket, sit-in, protest loudly but non-violently
  • Reach out to the shareholders of the parent company if publicly traded
  • Petition the school administration to cancel the bookstore’s contract for cause
  • Propose a co-op, non-profit bookstore run by student employees with faculty advisors
  • Editorialize in campus publications, websites, social media
  • Involve outside media (radio, TV, newspapers)

The time for timid suggestions is long passed. Activism gets results.

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I can think of three ways of tackling this:

  • The official route: finding out what the contract says, finding out who in the University is responsible for managing it, examining the contract to see whether they are in breach of it, establishing when it comes up for renewal, and ultimately getting it terminated.

  • The activism route: basically making their life sufficiently miserable that they change their ways, by boycotting them, giving them bad publicity, etc.

  • The persuasion route: find out who the bookstore manager's boss is; get on their side; explain that its in both your interests to improve things; get them to replace the current manager with someone competent.

My suspicion would be that the cause of the problem is an incompetent local manager, and that the bookstore's head office is probably as keen to sort the situation out as you are. You need to find out whether that's the case, because it will affect the strategy for solving the problem.

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The other answers here focus on how to make the bookstore change.

I'd like to add a thought on how to change the situation at the bookstore now. From what you write, one particularly annoying issue right now is that many students have to spend a lot of time in the line at the bookstore. It may be worth while if you as teacher of the course suggest to the bookstore to make one "bulk" purchase: have your students sign a list if they want to buy there, if needed collect copies of their student IDs, place the order with the book store and schedule an appointment when to collect the books or when they deliver the books to you (without the need to line up). All this can be done by your students, although I think that when calling the bookstore to agree on such a procedure you as the lecturer may have more weight than a student calling them.


That being said, I still find the culture of having one mandatory textbook strange for a university course.

Typically,

  • We have several textbooks to choose from (so each student can work with the textbook(s) that they get along with best)
  • Old editions are typically fine as well (I've sucessfully worked with several textbooks that were 30 - 40 years old in my first years at university)
  • We'd have been quite upset if the textbooks that were recommended as directly relevant hadn't been available in the library in sufficient numbers (we weren't that many, though). Many if not most of us started by using textbooks from the library at least until we knew which textbook suited us personally. That was also the recommended procedure for buying textbooks.
  • (Buying in student editions of software was either done at the university IT department, or directly from the software company.)

The first two points are something you can work towards in future when doing the next iteration on your lecture.

The third point is also something to bring up at your department and/or library, but may require quite hard negotiations. It is probably difficult to negotiate, but I noticed that substantial sets of textbooks had stickers saying that they were funded by certain foundations. But maybe you can find such money, and get the donor to tie the purpose to buying textbooks for the library. With the decision for faculty and/or library being textbooks vs. nothing, I'd think the textbooks have a good chance.

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    Thanks for this. Some thoughts. First of all, your suggested "bulk purchase model" is indeed what our bookstore pushes on our students. Indeed, I since learned that my students' books had been on the shelves all along. Apparently their software fouled up, my students were told that their books were not available, and there was no way to contact them. I had to escalate all the way to the provost before someone would tell me what is going on. – academic Aug 29 at 18:52
  • As far as your culture comments, I think that "using one book" is tied to the culture of American academia. Typically we try quite hard to keep everyone on the same page; homework (often just "Problems 2,3,5,9,11,14,15,19,22 of Chapter 4") is required and counts for a significant proportion of the grade; and students expect to be told explicitly what material the exam will cover. What you describe sounds very interesting, but also like it's adapted to a system very much different from ours. – academic Aug 29 at 18:59
  • I don't know the US system first hand, but from what I've heard, yes ours is quite different (and I think it used to be even more different). We typically have a curriculum stating which topics are relevant, possibly naming a few textbooks to give an idea of the required depth. Homework excercises are usually/often not graded but are seen as opportunities for self study offered to the students. Seminar excercises are more often graded. Both are distributed as sets of actual questions rather than references. In school, both ways are used. – cbeleites unhappy with SX Aug 29 at 19:27

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