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The University of Colorado at Boulder on Monday issued new statements on the case of Patti Adler, a popular sociology professor whose students and former students are furious over what they view as an attempt to pressure her to leave her job. While the university insists that it never threatened her job, it acknowledges raising concerns about a lecture on prostitution in her course on deviance, and questioning whether she could continue to teach the course. For one lecture in the class, she seeks volunteers among her assistant teaching assistants and they dress up as various types of prostitutes and describe the experiences of these individuals.
On Sunday, asked about concerns over Adler, a university spokesman said that "best practice" would have been for Adler to have had her class plans reviewed by the university's Institutional Review Board. That answer concerned many on campus and elsewhere, because IRBs focus entirely on research, not on classroom exercises. On Monday, Provost Russell L. Moore sent an email to faculty in which he said: "Many of you are raising concerns about comments by our campus spokesperson Mark Miller published today in Inside Higher Ed.... I want to make it clear to you that this was a question raised by CU Arts & Sciences Dean Steve Leigh – whether or not the use of student TAs as actors in a skit presented in a class should be accorded a review by the IRB. I want to make clear that this was not a declaration of a policy, or an expansion of IRB’s role. Inherent in Dean Leigh’s question from the beginning was whether or not some consent form, comparable to what might be required by IRB, would be appropriate. Our campus policies reveal that this is not an area in which IRB would become involved, as it only deals with human subjects used in the research process, not material used for teaching."
Also on Monday, Moore sent another email to the campus in which he offered a rationale other than the IRB issue for raising concerns about Adler's prostitution lecture. "A number of you have raised concerns about academic freedom and how it may connect to this situation. Academic freedom protects faculty who teach controversial and uncomfortable/ unpopular subjects. However, academic freedom does not allow faculty members to violate the university’s sexual harassment policy by creating a hostile environment for their teaching assistants, or for their students attending the class," Moore wrote. "In this case, university administrators heard from a number of concerned students about Professor Adler’s 'prostitution' skit, the way it was presented, and the environment it created for both students in the class and for teaching assistants. Student assistants made it clear to administrators that they felt there would be negative consequences for anyone who refused to participate in the skit. None of them wished to be publicly identified."
Adler said on Monday that this was the first she was hearing of these accusations, and that they had not been presented to her before. She has said (and numerous students in her class, including some who have been participants in the skit) that participation was voluntary and led to valuable discussions.