University of Colorado
Patricia Adler

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Too Risky for Boulder?

December 16, 2013

Patricia Adler stunned her students in a popular course on deviance Thursday by announcing that she would be leaving her tenured position teaching sociology at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Adler said that officials told her that one of the highlights of the course -- popular year after year -- had to go. That is an annual lecture on prostitution (a topic covered in deviance courses nationwide). Her news stunned students, who are mobilizing on social media to make sure she can stay on. And because the course typically enrolls 500 students, many students and alumni are expressing outrage.

"Patti Adler's deviance class was the best class I have ever taken. In particular, the interactive prostitution lecture was the most memorable and informative lecture I have ever experienced. It was in no way offensive.... It was real," wrote one student on an online petition demanding that Boulder keep her, without barring her from teaching the deviance course.

On a Facebook page of students organizing a rally to condemn what is happening to Adler, another student wrote: "Patti has been one of the most influential people in my life. Not only has she taught me about how to view society, but she has helped me realize what really happens in this world. The prostitution skit was a learning experience, and the university needs to open their eyes if they have such a problem with what happens in the real world. Patti's passion for deviance and every other subject deserves to be preserved, and she is what a fantastic professor SHOULD look like. Let's make the administration feel like they made the biggest mistake they could."

After Adler broke the news to her class, many students were in tears, and they gave her a standing ovation, followed by many hugs.

A university spokesman said Sunday night that Adler was still a tenured professor (although she said that the buyout agreement has not been signed or taken effect yet, so that is true but does not reflect her situation).

In an interview on Sunday with Inside Higher Ed, Adler described the prostitution lecture and why she announced plans to leave Boulder -- even though she stressed that she loves teaching there.

Adler said that the lecture in question has been part of her course for years, without incident. "It's the highlight of the semester in my signature course," she said.

She uses prostitution, she said, to illustrate that status stratification occurs in various groups considered deviant by society. She seeks volunteers from among assistant teaching assistants (who are undergraduates) to dress up as various kinds of prostitutes -- she named as categories "slave whores, crack whores, bar whores, streetwalkers, brothel workers and escort services." They work with Adler on scripts in which they describe their lives as these types of prostitutes.

During the lecture, Adler talks with them (with the assistant teaching assistants in character) about such issues as their backgrounds, "how they got into the business," how much they charge, the services they perform, and the risks they face of violence, arrest and AIDS. The class is a mix of lecture and discussion, just like most classes, she said.

Students in the course learn from this session about the many types of prostitutes and how different they are -- even within the broad category of prostitution, Adler said.

Adler said that she was told by Steven Leigh, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, that a former teaching assistant had raised a concern that some participants might be uncomfortable, but that none had in fact complained. Adler said that participation was entirely voluntary and not part of anyone's grade.

She said that Leigh told her that there was "too much risk" in having such a lecture in the "post-Penn State environment," alluding to the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Adler said that she was given the choice of accepting a buyout now, or staying but not teaching the course, and not giving the prostitution lecture, and to be aware that she could be fired and lose her retirement benefits if anyone complained about her teaching in the future.

The ultimatum stunned her, Adler said. She said it was a violation of her academic freedom to be told that she couldn't teach the lecture or the course. But she said she feared the impact of losing her retirement benefits if she stayed and got fired later. "This is health insurance my family depends on," she said.

Adler said that the incident showed that if a lecture makes anyone uncomfortable, the university will ignore common sense and worry more about "the risk" someone might be offended than whether this is information professors have a right to teach, and students have a right to learn. 

"It's a culture of fear. It's the bureaucratization of the university," she said.

Caitlin McCluskey, who was one of the assistant teaching assistants who participated in the prostitution lecture, praised the exercise. She played the part of an "upper class bar whore," and said via email that she was interviewed in front of the class for about three minutes. She said that the participatory nature of the class reflects the way Adler approaches teaching.

"I think the lecture was very valuable because it brought the material to life," McCluskey said. "Unlike many professors who teach large lectures, Patti always tried to engage students in a one-on-one manner. It was not unusual for her to walk up and down the steps of the lecture hall to ask students questions about the material and discussions occurred in nearly every class. She also didn't post her lecture slides, which forced students to come to class and be active participants."

IRB Approval Required?

Mark J. Miller, a spokesman for the university, said via email Sunday night that the university was limited in what it could say because a personnel matter is involved. But asked whether there were concerns about the prostitution lecture and whether they were expressed to Adler, Miller said: "Yes. CU-Boulder does not discourage teaching controversial topics but there has to be a legitimate educational basis for what is being taught in the classroom. In all cases involving people in research or teaching, whether controversial or not, we want to insist on best practices to ensure full regulatory compliance. In some cases, this could involve review from our Institutional Review Board, which is responsible for regulatory compliance involving human subjects."

Adler responded that IRBs are for research, not teaching. She noted that professors involve students in class exercises all the time without IRB approval, and that these students in her course were not talking about themselves, but playing a part. She also noted that she has given the lecture twice a year for more than 20 years, and that it is a well-known lecture on campus, and that there has never been a request that she go to the IRB to discuss the class. (The university's IRB website describes its mission as oversight of "human subject research.")

Asked about IRBs being for research, not teaching, Miller said,"Students did participate in the lecture. All we are saying is that it is a best practice to go to the IRB."

Miller stressed that no one is forced to retire at Colorado and that any actions against a tenured professor would involve various faculty committees.

Asked about the "post-Penn State" comment that Adler reported being told, Miller said that "all education institutions, including CU-Boulder, have to ensure that no student or employee feels subject to discrimination or harassment."

 

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