Prostitution skit in "Deviance" class, CU-Boulder's response both draw criticism

Earlier this week, we told you about controversy over CU-Boulder professor Patti Adler, who implied to students that she was being forced out at the university over a prostitution skit she included in her class entitled "Deviance in U.S. Society." Since that post, and in the face of social-media protests from students who want Adler to keep her job, CU-Boulder officials have stepped forward to put the best spin on the matter -- and they've also met with Adler supporters, who appear to have left the sit-down more confused about what's really happening than when they arrived.

As we've reported, Adler says the prostitution lecture has been part of her class for many years. In it, she has teaching assistants portray prostitutes who fit into assorted categories: "slave whores, crack whores, bar whores, streetwalkers, brothel workers and escort services."

The TAs, who Adler says volunteer to take part, then appear at the class in costume, with the prof conducting script-based mock-interviews featuring their comments about the specifics of their jobs and the inherent risks.

Here's a screen capture from one of the skit's, as seen in a 9News report on view below:

Prostitution skit in "Deviance" class, CU-Boulder's response both draw criticism

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Even though participation in the lecture is said to be "entirely voluntary and not part of anyone's grade," Adler told the publication Inside Higher Ed that her approach troubled Steven Leigh, College of Arts and Sciences dean, after he heard from an ex-TA who'd "raised a concern that some participants might be uncomfortable." Adler says Leigh mentioned the "post-Penn State environment" -- a reference, presumably, to the Jerry Sandusky child-sex scandal -- in the context of suggesting that the prostitution lecture presented "too much risk."

As such, Adler says Leigh gave her the option of accepting a buyout from CU or sticking around but agreeing not to teach the course and present the prostitution lecture -- both of which strike her as violating the letter and spirit of academic freedom.

CU-Boulder responded with a letter to students and staff from provost Russell L. Moore in which he stressed that Adler remained a tenured professor at the university, but she had been asked not to teach the "Deviance" class next semester. However, he also stressed that "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."

This line particularly rankled associate sociology professor Leslie Irvine, who called for Moore's resignation in a Wednesday meeting recounted by the Boulder Daily Camera. In Irvine's view, Moore had essentially implied that Adler was under investigation for sexual harassment.

Russell Moore, Steven Leigh and Paul Chinowsky at yesterday's press event.
Russell Moore, Steven Leigh and Paul Chinowsky at yesterday's press event.

Meanwhile, the university trotted out Leigh, Moore and Paul Chinowsky, Boulder chair of the faculty assembly, for a press event intended to make CU's actions look smart and well-balanced, as opposed to a politically correct attack on academic freedom. The school also released audio of a meeting about the case to the Camera by way of demonstrating that concerns over Adler's class had accrued for years, over issues like students being photographed without their consent (and the signing of releases), as opposed to being generated by a single complaint from a former teaching assistant.

"It's best practices in teaching that are the main concern in this case," said Leigh in a Daily Camera video also seen here.

Added Chinowsky: "We wanted to make sure that students were being protected, was there any harassment, what was going on."

Meanwhile, on the Help Patti Adler Stay At CU!!! Facebook page, Cody Chadek, organizer of a petition on Adler's behalf that's collected well over 2,500 signatures, he shared his account of a meeting with Leigh. In it, he notes that the dean asked him not to discuss their conversation, although he said there'd be no repercussions if he did. After that, Chadek maintains that Leigh presented the school's position in an oddly circular manner. Chadek's conclusion: "The entire meeting seemed to be administration trying to find a solution but not coming to one yet." Continue to see Cody Chadek's complete account of the meeting, provost Russell Moore's letter to students and staff, and two videos.  

Patti Adler, in a photo from her CU website for students of her class.
Patti Adler, in a photo from her CU website for students of her class.

Here's Chadek's Facebook account of the meeting with Leigh:

Well, a few of us met with the Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences today. He had asked us to not reveal anything discussed in the meeting, but that no actions would be taken against us if we did. First off, I found this rather odd, as if they were trying to hide the truth of something. Secondly, I think that everyone who is backing Patti has the right to know what was discussed and what is going on with the issue! (Might I add that if pressure of any sort tries to come back to me for posting this, I will have attorneys at my side. The First Amendment is still an amendment, and I did not sign any paper/contract stating that I would keep quiet.)

Essentially, the conversation was somewhat of a giant circle. We expressed our concerns and disappointment. The dean assured us that Patti was still a professor of the university, but it was in her best intentions to not teach the class next semester. Through further discussion, it was discovered that Patti has the option to have the class reviewed by other faculty members. There are more loopholes in this though.

Apparently Patti was unaware that she had the option to have the class reviewed. It seemed as if no one was aware that she had this option until today; it kind of seems like they're just making that decision just now amid the negativity coming back to the administration from this. Not only that, but the only thing she was told was in fact that it was in her best intentions to not teach the class next semester.

The dean summed up the meeting towards the end by announcing that Joanne Belknap, the Head of the Sociology Department, indeed has more authority and decision making over this situation than he himself. We should forward our complaints and comments about the decision to her from now on. She seems to be the go-to person as of now.

As for the petition, the dean did acknowledge that it was impressive how many signatures we have been able to gather. I was unable to print the hundreds of pages of petition, but he has agreed for me to compile the petition in a PDF file and to have it e-mailed to him. I am compiling a list of great comments and feedback on the situation. Thank you all for signing the petition AND for leaving comments! It's much appreciated and this will be a big help!

Overall, the entire meeting seemed to be administration trying to find a solution but not coming to one yet. It has not been very long, so that is understandable. Keep showing your support; it looks like something could be done, it will just be a challenge!!!

Here's a Daily Camera video from yesterday's press event:

And here's the aforementioned 9News report, followed by the provost's letter to students and staff.

Letter from the CU provost about Patti Adler:

Dear CU-Boulder Faculty, Staff and Students,

The University has received a number of queries from faculty, staff, students, media and external stakeholders regarding the status of sociology Professor Patti Adler.

Professor Adler has not been dismissed from the University and is not being forced to retire. Dismissal requires extensive due process proceedings, and the University does not coerce its faculty to retire. She remains a tenured faculty member in sociology at CU-Boulder.

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.

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.

The Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences and the Chair of the Sociology Department determined that Professor Adler would not teach the class in the spring semester (2014). Pending a review by faculty in sociology and in accordance with the needs of the department, Professor Adler may be eligible to teach the course in the future.

To reiterate, Professor Adler has not been fired or forced to retire. As to comments she has made that she might be fired in the future, I should note that any employee at the University -- including faculty members -- found responsible for violating the University's sexual harassment policy, is subject to discipline up to and including termination.

The University fully supports the teaching of controversial subjects, and the ability of faculty to challenge students in the classroom and prompt critical thinking. At no time was the subject of Professor Adler's course in question. Rather, it was the manner in which the material was presented in one particular classroom exercise and the impact of that manner of presentation on teaching assistants and students.

Russell L. Moore, Provost University of Colorado Boulder

Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.

More from our Education archive circa September 2012: "Ward Churchill's Colorado Supreme Court loss shows judges protect the powerful, lawyer says."


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