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U. of Colorado Faculty Approve Deviance Course, But Future Remains Uncertain

By December 31, 2013

Earlier this month, University of Colorado at Boulder (CU-Boulder) Professor Patricia Adler alleged that she was given a choice between resigning or discontinuing her long-running and popular “Deviance in U.S. Society” course. Administrators raised concerns about a presentation focusing on prostitution in which teaching assistants volunteered to role-play as prostitutes while answering questions for the class, but the school’s asserted reasons for investigating the class shifted as professors and those concerned about academic freedom debunked each one in turn. University spokesman Mark K. Miller finally declared that the course might be allowed to continue if a panel of faculty members approved it. On Sunday night, a committee created by CU-Boulder’s sociology department did just that.

In recommending that CU-Boulder let Adler teach her course again in the spring, the four professors on the committee pointed to seven years of positive reviews for the course, particularly affirmative answers to the question of whether Adler showed “respect for and professional treatment of all students regardless of” a number of classifications including sex and sexual orientation. Additionally, neither the committee nor department chairs who had served over the past decade had received formal complaints about Adler or her teaching. “[P]roperly conducted role-playing and skits are meritorious pedagogical techniques,” the committee wrote, and Adler’s assigned reading and other course components were “appropriate.”

But despite the faculty approval, this isn’t necessarily the end of the case. According to the Daily Camera:

Boulder campus spokesman Bronson Hilliard cautioned … that Adler is not yet cleared to return to teaching the course, as the sociology department’s executive committee still must sign off on the review by [the review committee].

“The sociology department generally relies on the executive committee to inform and weigh in on the department’s major decisions, and this opportunity to weigh in is consistent with that role,” Hilliard said.

Even if she receives the official go-ahead, Adler is not wholly reassured by the review committee’s findings. Worried that she might still be punished if a student or even an administrator visiting the class were to complain, Adler is considering whether she wants to continue to teach at CU-Boulder. Further, in light of a statement from Provost Russell Moore that the American Association of University Professors said “strongly implied that Professor Adler had sexually harassed her students,” Adler says she may take legal action against the school for defamation.

It is good to see Adler’s peers assess her course based on the facts and on common sense, but the course’s still-uncertain future demonstrates the extent to which CU-Boulder’s actions threaten academic freedom. Particularly without a clear statement from the university that its investigation was inappropriate and that Adler’s job is safe absent credible complaints from students and a fair hearing, professors may not feel comfortable discussing controversial topics in creative ways. CU-Boulder must officially approve Adler’s course and publicly reaffirm faculty rights to make decisions about their teaching without being subjected to additional review just because, as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Steven Leigh suggested, some participants might be uncomfortable.

Image: Wolf Law Building at CU-Boulder - Wikimedia Commons 

Schools: University of Colorado at Boulder Cases: University of Colorado at Boulder: Professor Threatened with Harassment Investigation, Forced Retirement Over Classroom Presentation