The Associated Students of Madison’s Academic Affairs Committee Chair Jonah Zinn says he’s hoping the group’s staunch focus on improving textbook accessibility and affordability this semester will yield solid results.
The committee is geared toward solving academic issues from A to Z, Zinn said. And most recently it has brought forth a resolution to the University of Wisconsin University Committee that outlines formal recommendations for faculty regarding their textbook usage — something he thinks will lead to a tangible outcome for students.
“When it comes to a point where you are paying hundreds of dollars per semester, it affects every student on this campus,” Zinn said.
After conducting a recent survey of approximately 1,800 students, the committee discovered the majority of respondents spend between $200 and $400. The survey also revealed 95 percent of those surveyed think textbooks are too expensive.
Zinn said the high costs are a problem, but working together with all involved interests is going to be the best way to find a solution.
“I don’t think anyone in this scenario is an enemy. No one is saying, ‘I want higher textbook costs.’ But we have to work with different perspectives — professors having the ability to create their own curriculum and respecting that. But also them respecting that their decisions really impact us, and then administrators really trying to balance it out.”
So, what is it they are doing exactly?
While in the past the committee has tackled multiple issues at once, Zinn said he thinks the focus on textbooks is the best way to yield what students want.
Two major endeavors the group has tackled thus far this semester include the textbook swap, which has since ended, and the ongoing Affordable Textbook Campaign, which began in September.
The textbook swap has been in play for the past four semesters and was started when past chair and UW junior Chris Tiernan was an ASM intern his freshman year. The swap provides an alternative to bookstore prices by helping students sell their used books to each other, Zinn said.
While Tiernan said one of his campaign’s last year was to streamline the effectiveness of the swap, Zinn said it has outgrown last year’s by four times, which has led to a very time-consuming event.
Nevertheless, Tiernan said he thinks Zinn is really stepping up to the plate in his efforts surrounding textbook problems.
“I think the difference with how Jonah is running the committee and how I did when we were working on textbook swap is that Jonah has really taken it to another level,” Tiernan said. “He’s doing other things with it besides textbook swap.'”
Zinn’s other focus on the Affordable Textbook Campaign has led to a proposal that could, down the road, require faculty to adhere to certain recommendations.
Those recommendations in the proposal include compelling professors to post book lists at least four weeks prior to the start of the semester, waiting to use new editions until after two years and exploring alternative options to traditional textbooks.
Zinn said such a resolution would give students the ability to shop around for cheap alternatives prior to the semester’s start.
University Committee Chair William Tracy said the committee’s resolution is somewhat out of the ordinary.
“I’ve been on the University Committee for four years, and I cannot remember a case where a student organization or any organization other than a faculty senator has brought forward a motion or a resolution directly,” Tracy said.
He added that most often someone will come to the committee with an issue, and depending on the response, the committee itself will perhaps arrange a resolution.
“It’s rather unusual to bring an already-written resolution to the committee,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a big deal — it’s their right to do that. But it is kind of unusual.”
Associate Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs Aaron Brower said he thinks while the intent of having material early for students is “important and useful,” the Academic Affairs committee’s strategy is not the way he would tackle the issue.
“My own strategy is that it’s more effective to have students bug the hell out of instructors and say, ‘Where’s my textbook info?’ If there are 300 students in your class, if you’re inundated with e-mails several weeks ahead, I think that’s a lot more effective for that instructor than it is to try and pass a resolution that kind of forces faculty to do that,” Brower said.
Whether or not Brower’s strategy is the right way to go, Zinn and the committee will now wait to see what the University Committee decides after this week’s meeting.
The University Committee will deliberate before their next meeting and decide whether they will support the proposal — although they’ve already expressed optimism. The proposal would then go to the university’s Faculty Senate for approval, which could take months.
While Zinn said the committee is making strides this semester, he has also admitted the group’s lack of resources is leading to restrictions on what they can accomplish.
Tiernan said the committee’s current focus is spot on.
“It’s good that for this first semester they’re focusing just on getting these different ideas through, so that next semester they can branch out a little bit more,” he said. “Since [Zinn] is new to running this committee, it is a good thing that they are all focusing on this one campaign.”
But Zinn said if the committee could increase its involvement, other campaigns would be feasible.
“The [textbook] swap alone takes a lot of people,” he said. “That’s honestly the main thing that we’re doing now, because we just don’t have the resources or number of people to do anything else.”
Zinn said the deficiency in members and volunteers is not, however, the fault of the students.
“I don’t place students at blame at all for that,” he added. “I think it’s totally on the fault of the committees of ASM.”
Tiernan said he thinks since Zinn is taking the committee’s textbook efforts to another level, there is certainly more time and manpower required to fulfill those goals.
Brower said one solution to the committee’s lack of resources would be to create a streamlined business plan for the swap to help aid its growing popularity in the future.
“They need to figure out a way to keep it going without killing themselves. It’s an event they really have to plan for one month in advance,” Brower added. “There is a lot of infrastructure needed to make it work.”
Brower suggested the business plan allow for a 1 to 2 percent overhead cost — something that is currently not implemented — to allow the committee to pay those working at the swap and give them incentive to do the needed work.
“I think they just need some system to keep it sustainable. It’s too good of a program to just let it die because it’s a victim of its own success,” he said.
Zinn said next semester he hopes to address other outlets where students can get textbooks, as well as look into how students with financial aid are faring with high costs and how the committee can help those students in particular.