Patti Adler, CU professor, called on the carpet over prostitution skit

Patti Adler is a longtime professor at CU-Boulder. But whether she'll continue at the school is unclear at this writing due to complaints over a prostitution skit included in her "Deviance in U.S. Society" class. Not since CU-Boulder's long-running (and ultimately successful) effort to fire controversial professor Ward Churchill has a conflict between the university and an instructor roused such passions, including multiple social media campaigns and an online petition to save Adler's job. Get details, see a video and read CU's response below.

An article in the publication Inside Higher Ed features an interview with Adler, who notes that 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 lecture, as seen in a 9News report below:

Even though participation in the lecture is said to be "entirely voluntary and not part of anyone's grade," Adler tells 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.

Ditto that for those who've been weighing in on the Help Patti Adler stay at CU!!! Facebook group and a second page entitled Help Save Patti Adler's Teaching Career. Here's one particularly telling post on the former:

Patti's research and Deviance in Society class is one of the major reasons I wanted to become a sociologist. Her work, although controversial at times, is instrumental in the study of sociology and CU would be making a huge mistake letting her go. Who wants to take a class that is run of the mill, doesn't make them think or challenge them in any way? Controversial? Sure. But there are a lot of classes you could deem 'controversial' or 'inappropriate' at CU. Patti is a strong and inspirational professor and she should be treasured at CU, not cast aside.

Continue for more about Patti Adler and CU-Boulder, including another photo, a video and a letter from to students and staff about the issue. There's also a petition on Change.org entitled "University of Colorado Boulder: Keep Patti Adler as a Professor." Its intro reads:

Patti Adler is a professor in the Sociology Department at CU Boulder who teaches Deviance. In her lecture, she presented a skit about prostitution as an interactive learning activity. The university saw this as "inappropriate" and decided to force a buyout upon her. The lecture was attempting to make a lesson about a deviant activity more interesting (considering that the class is indeed entitled 'Deviance'). Patti is a well-respected and dedicated educator who has literally been the face of the Sociology Department -- students in a variety of majors want to take her class and love it as well. She puts all her effort into this class and is always making sure we are learning and understanding the material by making lectures captivating. Currently there is a movement trying to help her keep her position here at the university. This petition will assist in presenting to the school's administrators how important she is to the student body here, and how much of a poor decision we think this is by the school.

The petition has exceeded 2,500 signatures, and earlier today, organizer Cody Chadek posted this note: "We have been able to schedule a meeting with Steven Leigh (Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences) to present our concerns and the petition. We'll try our best to fight for Patti! Once again, thanks for all of the support! It has been much appreciated!"

Meanwhile, CU students and staff were sent a note from the university provost, Russell Moore, on the Adler situation.

The letter denies that Adler has been given the heave-ho -- the takeaway from attendees of Adler's class on Thursday, when, as reported by the Boulder Daily Camera, she told students she wouldn't be coming back after winter break and the choice wasn't hers. Instead, Moore emphasizes that she remains a tenured professor. As for what led to the situation in the first place, Moore writes:

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.

Moore adds that Adler's supervisors determined she wouldn't teach "Deviance in U.S. Society" next semester, although it's possible she could be allowed to do so in the future.

Whether she would take that offer if it didn't include the prostitution lecture is as unclear as the potential fallout from another yet another CU-Boulder controversy.

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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