Patricia Adler

Deviance Course Lives On

January 10, 2014

Patricia Adler is coming back to teach her much-loved (by students at least) course on deviance at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

In December, she told students in the course that she was being pressured to resign as a tenured professor of sociology because administrators were uncomfortable with the course, which routinely attracts hundreds of students a semester. In particular, questions were raised about an exercise in which some of her assistant teaching assistants volunteered to dress up as different types of prostitutes and talk about their characters.

The nature of the objection from the university changed several times, starting with a claim that the exercise should have been subject to review by an institutional review board. This stunned not only Adler (who had used the exercise without objection for 20 years), but many other professors, who pointed out that IRBs are for research, not teaching. The university backed down, and said IRB reviews were indeed not needed for classroom skits.

Then the university said that there were concerns about how students felt, and whether they all knew they could decline to participate. National and local faculty groups then denounced the university's treatment of Adler, and students and alumni rallied on her behalf.

Then the university said that she could teach the course again if it was reviewed by a panel of sociology faculty members, and approved by her department. Those things happened, but Adler said she wasn't certain she wanted to return, as she was uncertain about her academic freedom in this environment.

Now she says she is ready to go back and once again teach her course on deviance. But in a statement, she said she felt that the university had mistreated her in how it raised questions about her course and suggested in a series of public email messages that she may have done something wrong.

"After more than a month marked by trauma, turmoil, and great emotional distress for my family and myself, I am proud to say that the University of Colorado has backed down from their initial position and is allowing me to return to teach this semester in the course, Deviance in U.S. Society," she wrote.

"During this process my character was severely and repeatedly defamed by administration officials, I was denied academic freedom and due process, my rights to privacy in a personnel matter were trampled, I was both intimidated and induced to take early retirement, and was then buffeted by the continuous and changing stories coming from the university as they attempted to cover up their egregious mishandling of my case."

Adler said that while she was gratified that all of the reviews cleared her, the fact that her course "had to undergo this extraordinary scrutiny to reverse CU’s initial jump to judgment is a sad statement on what is occurring in universities." She added: "My victory today is a small one, and mostly Pyrrhic, because the trends toward mission creep and overreach by bodies such as the Office of Discrimination and Harassment and Institutional Review Boards are increasingly dominating decision-making in higher education. Universities and schools at all levels around the globe are increasingly sacrificing academic freedom as they become more concerned with risk and liability than with creating an environment in which creativity and ideas can flourish and students can be challenged to expand their horizons."

A spokesman for the university said that it would not respond directly to Adler's statement, although it does disagree with it. But the spokesman added: "The institution's motivation at all times in this situation was concern for the the welfare of students and teaching assistants."

As for the prostitution lecture, Adler said she would keep it. Via email she said: "Since my 'skit' became public, many people have sent me more scholarly materials on which to draw and the Sex Workers Outreach Project has also offered to help me enhance the skit with the experiences of their membership, so I have a lot of new materials. Everyone I know, and many people I don’t know want to be in the skit, so I’m going to have trouble choosing between them. But two committees in the sociology department have approved it providing that I use the appropriate consent measures for participants. I’m a bit worried that with all the publicity my own students are going to have trouble getting seats in the room that day, but that’s a good problem to have."


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