Last week, University of Colorado at Boulder (CU-Boulder) Professor Patricia Adler announced she would be leaving the school after she was given a choice between resigning or discontinuing her long-running “Deviance in U.S. Society” course, because of a presentation on prostitution that many students identified as a high point of the course for many years running.
Inside Higher Ed describes the presentation:
[Adler] seeks volunteers from among assistant teaching assistants … to dress up as various kinds of prostitutes … . They work with Adler on scripts in which they describe their lives as these types of prostitutes.
During the lecture, Adler talks with them (with the assistant teaching assistants in character) about such issues as their backgrounds, “how they got into the business,” how much they charge, the services they perform, and the risks they face of violence, arrest and AIDS. The class is a mix of lecture and discussion, just like most classes, she said.
Several aspects of this case are alarming. First is the fact that, according to Adler’s statements to Inside Higher Ed, no one complained about the lecture in question or Adler’s teaching. This itself is not shocking, since Adler has given the prostitution lecture twice a year for more than 20 years and the course is highly popular at CU-Boulder, with an enrollment of about 500 students.
Nevertheless, Inside Higher Ed reports (emphasis added):
Adler said that she was told by Steven Leigh, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, that a former teaching assistant had raised a concern that some participants might be uncomfortable, but that none had in fact complained. Adler said that participation was entirely voluntary and not part of anyone’s grade.
If this is true, administrators proactively forced out a professor who taught a course to which students have flocked for decades, not because of complaints, but because of the potential for someone to be made uncomfortable. By this standard, many courses worth teaching could be canceled—particularly with increasing participation in what Jonathan Rauch has called the “offendedness sweepstakes”: the continual lowering of the societal bar for what is deemed “offensive.” Thankfully, it appears that Adler’s students have not “unlearned liberty” just yet—they are rallying to defend Adler on Facebook and in the media.
Sadly, though, this isn’t the first time a college professor has been punished for teaching exactly what was promised in a course’s description. Torch readers may recall University of Denver Professor Arthur Gilbert, who was suspended without a hearing and forced to attend “sensitivity training” after discussing sex and drugs in a section of a course on the war on drugs that was—according to the syllabus—meant to focus on “Drugs and Sin in American Life: From Masturbation and prostitution to alcohol and drugs.”
CU-Boulder’s additional justifications for terminating the course were more specific, though not stronger:
[Adler] said that Leigh told her that there was “too much risk” in having such a lecture in the “post-Penn State environment,” alluding to the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
The implication here seems to be that allowing adults to choose to participate in classroom discussions about sex is the first step towards allowing egregious, tragic, and criminal physical violence like child sexual abuse. There are many ways to distinguish these scenarios—most obviously with the line between consenting adults and children who didn’t and legally couldn’t consent, but also with the line between speech and behavior. Beyond that, though, Leigh’s reasoning is arguably backwards, as Adler’s course aims to bring attention to the realities of sex work, including people who are forced into it. It’s unclear why this would lead to sexual abuse or increased liability for such abuse if it were to occur like it did at Penn State.
Even more strangely, CU-Boulder spokesman Mark J. Miller told Inside Higher Ed that “best practices” would involve Adler submitting her lecture to the Institutional Review Board for review—a procedure that applies to research with human subjects. But as Adler points out, “the students in [the] course were not talking about themselves, but playing a part.” No human subjects were being researched. To ask Adler to have her presentation reviewed by the IRB would be to suggest that the IRB should look into every English class that involves a performance of Shakespeare or every history class for which students are instructed to write a diary as though they were an 19th century Irish immigrant.
In light of such flawed reasoning, it is no wonder that Adler chose not to continue at CU-Boulder. She explained to Insider Higher Ed that she would still be at risk even if she agreed not to teach the course at issue:
Adler said that she was given the choice of accepting a buyout now, or staying but not teaching the course, and not giving the prostitution lecture, and to be aware that she could be fired and lose her retirement benefits if anyone complained about her teaching in the future.
Unless there is far more to this case than has so far come out, CU-Boulder’s ultimatum and administrators’ statements in defense of their actions demonstrate a stunning lack of appreciation for the very purpose of higher education. The First Amendment protects the rights of professors and students at public universities like CU-Boulder to discuss controversial matters even if a student might be made uncomfortable. The Chronicle of Higher Education relayed Adler’s remarks on Facebook:
“The culture of political correctness along with the culture of fear shoved me through the process in less than a week without even a complainant or a legitimate investigation,” she wrote. “It is frightening that a full, tenured professor would be treated this way on the first time a concern is raised, with no possibility to react to the concerns.”
Considering CU-Boulder’s handling of the situation, it’s hard to believe that any professor’s position—or academic freedom—is safe at the university. FIRE will keep Torch readers apprised of further developments in this deeply troubling case.
Image: CU Boulder engineering center – Wikimedia Commons