A Skeptical Engineer

A College Professor I Can Respect

When David Ullman saw prices for his popular engineering textbook skyrocket, he took action.

Buying textbooks as a freshmen starting off on a college engineering education was an eye-opening experience. The books were expensive to a kid who had already shelled out quite a few dollars and gone in debt for quite a few more just to get there. Surely there was a less expensive way to do this: borrow the books, softcover versions, Xeroxes? It was also my first clue that the college could care less about how much the education was going to cost students (and their families).

Talking to my younger relatives, it seems college books have only skyrocketed in price. So I checked Amazon and found my old Calculus book and two Physics texts were now in the $130 to $240 range (and a higher edition number, not that there was all that much to change), though the mail-order firm had some used books for sale.

With that in mind, it was refreshing to hear about Professor David G. Ullman, a man who had spent 20 years teaching various aspects of engineering at Oregon State University. During that time, he also wrote a book in 1992, The Mechanical Design Practice, that became a standard for teaching best practices for engineering design and used at top engineering schools world-wide.

When it was first published, he insisted that the publisher, McGraw Hill, keep the price under $50, which they did. But then after success in the engineering world and five editions later, the price was up to $166. Ullman protested every price increase, saying it was unfair to students, forcing some to do without if they couldn’t find a cheaper used or bootleg version. He even called various presidents and vice presidents at McGraw Hill Higher Education Div., pleading with them to lower the price. One did promise to do so but didn’t, according to Ullman.

Finally, in May of this year, with the price of his book hovering around $166 and bound to go up, he offered to buy back the book from McGraw. The book still sold in the thousands every year regardless of the price, so he was surprised when they agreed. In fact, they even gave Ullman the rights to the sixth and future editions, all for free.

“It is interesting to note, that as soon as the agreement was signed, McGraw Hill’s list price was lowered by $30,” says Ullman. “I still don’t understand their business model. But, I do know a fair price for a mature and useful book.”

So now students, and you, can get the 6th edition of the book for $49.95. But I have the sneaking suspicion that somewhere, less-interested professors are demanding their students have the 5th edition.

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