Colorado university terminates popular prostitution lecture

A tenured sociology professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder is leaving the school after being told by school officials that she could no longer teach a lecture on prostitution — which includes a voluntarily skit in which students portray the lives of prostitutes as they speak to an interviewer — in a long-popular course called “Deviance in U.S. Society.”

Students who have taken the 500-student course defended Professor Patti Adler with a Facebook petition and other public expressions of support, while the Colorado chapter of the American Association of University Professors released a statement calling the university’s action “a clear violation of academic freedom and an unwarranted infringement on Professor Adler’s professional obligation to choose effective instructional methods to communicate disciplinary knowledge in her classroom.”

As backlash over the episode continued to grow, university officials spoke at a 70-minute closed-door meeting with faculty members on Wednesday, addressing concerns from professors about how Adler was treated. After the meeting the officials said at a press conference (see video below) that their “main concern” was not about the lecture’s content but about whether students might be filmed or photographed without their consent, perhaps on other students’ cell phones, the Daily Camera reported.

The Daily Camera story said:

“What we know based on our discussion with sociology is that there have been concerns expressed over the years, and unfortunately these concerns have not been dealt with in an effective manner,” said Steven Leigh, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, according to an audio recording of the meeting provided to the Daily Camera.

 

 

The story also said:

“With any course involving something unusual, like photographing students, we ask for consent forms to be signed,” Leigh said. “For example, when we photograph someone in a theater rehearsal, they have to sign consent forms for this. We were concerned in this course that maybe there are cell phone videos being taken or other kinds of videos that would put students in a position where we didn’t have consent on these issues.”

Adler, however, told the Camera and other publications that all of the students who participate in the skit know they are being videotaped and often ask for copies as keepsakes. The administration, she said, never expressed concerns about the issue of requiring consent from students to participate.

She also said that she was told that the course was deemed a “risk” to the university after being investigated by the Office of Discrimination and Harassment. She was told that the course would have to be reviewed by the Sociology Department or she could choose to retire.

Adler explained the controversial skit to Inside Higher Ed in this story, which says in part:

She uses prostitution, she said, to illustrate that status stratification occurs in various groups considered deviant by society. She seeks volunteers from among assistant teaching assistants (who are undergraduates) to dress up as various kinds of prostitutes — she named as categories “slave whores, crack whores, bar whores, streetwalkers, brothel workers and escort services.” 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. Students in the course learn from this session about the many types of prostitutes and how different they are — even within the broad category of prostitution, Adler said.

She said that even though she believes her academic freedom had been violated, she chose to retire with a buyout because she feared that if she stayed, she might be fired and lose health insurance benefits that her family needs.

Adler told Inside Higher Ed that Leigh had told her that no student had complained but that a former teaching assistant had raised a concern about participants being uncomfortable. She responded by noting that the skit was not part of any student’s grade and that it was entirely voluntary. It had become a risk to the school, she said she was told by Lee, in the “post-Penn State environment,” a reference to the scandal at that school over Jerry Sandusky, the former football coach at Penn State who was found guilty of multiple counts of sexually abusing young boys.

In regard to that comment, Inside Higher Ed quoted university spokesman Mark J. Miller as saying that “all education institutions, including CU-Boulder, have to ensure that no student or employee feels subject to discrimination or harassment.”

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | December 20, 2013