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:

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.

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.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts

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