CU Boulder students say tenured faculty member being forced out over a lecture on prostitution

At Thursday’s 2 to 3 p.m. class inside the Cristol Chemistry and Biochemistry auditorium, or “chem 140” as it’s called by students, Adler lectured for about 20 minutes before telling students she would not return in the spring.

Students said Adler then told the class that she was being forced into retirement because the administration thought her lecture on prostitution was inappropriate, degrading to women and offensive to some minority communities.

The prostitution lecture is given as a skit in which many of Adler’s teaching assistants dress up as various types of prostitutes. The teaching assistants portrayed prostitutes ranging from sex slaves to escorts, and described their lifestyles and what led them to become prostitutes.

Students said Adler told them the administration heard a complaint about the skit. On the day of the lecture, several people who did not appear to be students attended the skit and took lots of notes, students said.

Adler told her students she tried to negotiate with the administration about leaving the skit off the syllabus. Administrators allegedly told Adler that in the era of sex scandals at schools like Penn State University, they couldn’t let her keep teaching.

From here. 

22 thoughts on “CU Boulder students say tenured faculty member being forced out over a lecture on prostitution

  1. I wonder if it was a student who complained, or a TA who didn’t like being pressured to participate. The latter seems more reasonable to me.

  2. “Senior Caitlin McCluskey, who was an assistant for Adler’s sociology class, performed as a prostitute during the skit earlier this semester.

    She said all assistants were given the option of participating, and no one was forced to act in the skit. McCluskey said she was tasked with portraying an “upper-class bar whore” and wore a dress she already owned as a costume.

    “I never felt pressured in any way,” McCluskey said. “I never felt uncomfortable. (The skit) was one of the main reasons I wanted to be come an (assistant) in the first place. It seemed like a lot of fun.””

  3. Someone who wanted to participate or was happy participating may not have been aware whether others felt under pressure to join in.

    I can also imagine this going horribly wrong I have seen people performing in an educational skit about inmates with mental illnesses who were imprisoned in earlier centuries. It pretty offensive.

  4. I can also imagine the skit being pretty offensive – privileged people making light of those who have, in some cases, very few options but prostitution. I think it was probably unwise, but certainly not something that should make one lose tenure. But what is really offensive is the administration comparing this to what happened at Penn State.

  5. May not and can imagine are pretty far from is. A respected scholar and teacher lost her job.

  6. I think it is important to note that the lecturer (and class) is in Sociology. This isn’t to say that whatever happened is not our concern, but that conclusions shouldn’t be drawn from this about the Philosophy Department at Boulder.

  7. The surrounding details don’t make sense if indeed the professor was “forced out”. One of the comments on the CU News article reports second-hand that she got an early retirement deal at full pay. That fits better.

    I don’t have a serious or informed view about the value or propriety of the class. The academic freedom issue, though, looks very different if Prof. Adler was ‘bought out’ rather than ‘forced out’.

  8. Someone who is bought out can still be being forced out. It depends a lot on what her alternatives are.

  9. The story seems to be that she was told she couldn’t teach that class anymore. Under that condition, she preferred the buy-out.

    I don’t like political decisions about what courses can be taught, but it’s not really the kind of academic freedom violation that you’d expect when you hear “faculty member forced out”.

  10. Offers you can’t refuse can very much be cases of being forced out. A faculty member was made an offer, with an implicit threat, to goad her into no longer teaching.

  11. It’s worrying that a dean is the source of the action. There’s a lot of worry that middle management in universities have become very powerful and have little in the way of checks on their behavior. It can be very risky to seek your legal rights when a dean is out after you. Few faculty can afford to go to trial.

    I would certainly worry about where the idea that there’s been one TA who’s worried about her class came from. Is someone telling the truth? Or is someone setting the dean on her?

  12. I wanted to share this letter from the Provost that was in my inbox this am:

    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

  13. Woman graduate student checking in here.

    I’m unsettled by the updated post on Leiter about this, where he says it is “unlikely” that this is a “credible” case of sexual harassment. From what I have read of this case, it certainly seems plausible to me that this could be a case of harassment.

    I know that if a professor I was TAing for asked me to volunteer to dress and act like a prostitute in front of my own students, even for pedagogical purposes, I would feel extremely uncomfortable. Male students sexualizing their female TAs can be a real issue, and I have sometimes had to work hard to be respected as an authority figure by the students I’ve led tutorials for in the past. Of course these student assistants seem like they were less than TAs, but it does still sound as if they had some responsibilities with the class, such as helping with lectures, grading, et cetera.

    I can also easily see how being asked to participate in this skit might very well have felt pressured to go along with it, especially if some of their fellow assistants were vocally enthusiastic about it. I wouldn’t necessarily want to alienate myself from my peers, and it can moreover seem difficult, dangerous, and time-consuming to kick up an official fuss. Plus, if the professor had any influence over my studies whatsoever, or my future success in the department or elsewhere, I would definitely feel pressured to comply. I’m not sure if them being undergraduate student assistants makes this better or worse in this respect, but either way I can conceive of it being pretty problematic. The letter says that some of the assistants “felt there would be negative consequences for anyone who refused to participate”, and I see no reason to not take that testimony at face value.

  14. I completely agree with Student (comment #13).

    I think I’d be *extremely* uncomfortable with this, and I might have brought the complaint forward myself. Whether this is the right reaction on the university’s part is a different question. But what I think happened here may very well have been seriously inappropriate.

  15. I wonder if philosophy and sociology could be different here? There’s a group of people who have put on a lot of vignettes illustrating good and bad behavior re women in STEM fields. I think the vignettes cover sexual harassment. And I think the players are students or young faculty at UMich. At least at one time they were very in demand as faculty tried to get the issues discussed. This doesn’t sound bad even though unacceptable behavior was acted out.

  16. I think that context is *radically* different than TAs being asked to act something out by their professor.

  17. Point taken, Rachel. Though were they really asked? One could just ask if anyone was interested. When I’ve done that, I have gotten students who felt they had to, but most didn’t, I think. And I didn’t think I should be blamed if they took a request as a demand. Of course, this can be tricky.

  18. The C of HE has its latest behind a wall. Here from it is some relevant stuff

    The skit was performed this fall largely as it had been in past semesters, but the audience was slightly different in that it included representatives of the university’s Office of Discrimination and Harassment.

    In a December 10 memorandum to Ms. Adler, Llen Pomeroy, that office’s manager, pointed out three aspects of the performance that were later discussed with Ms. Adler as problematic: a student playing the role of a straight male streetwalker repeatedly used the term “faggot,” a student playing a pimp made joking references to how he beats women, and a student portrayed a Latvian “slave whore” in a manner that might have offended students from that nation or other parts of Eastern Europe.

    The letter from Ms. Pomeroy acknowledged that her office had not formally investigated the performance because no one had formally complained about it, and that “this is the first time concerns have been raised to our office about your class or the prostitution skit.”

    Ms. Adler has blamed the controversy surrounding the latest performance of the skit on a single teaching assistant whom she did not identify, but whom she accuses of trying to round up other teaching assistants to informally complain.

    Ms. Adler has also accused the sociology department’s chairwoman, Joanne Belknap, of having opposed the skit as trivializing the lives of sex workers and violence against women, and having directly said to Ms. Adler that she welcomes the opportunity to push her out.

  19. Actually, I *do* think you can be blameworthy if they treated a request as a demand.

    But that’s interesting. I think I’m going to have to write a paper on that (building on what I’m doing in a chapter in my book on discursive injustice and norms of indirect speech acts).

  20. Rachel, I’m not sure I disagree. I meant to be talking about whether I could be held blameworthy, and I was thinking of one sort of case, though you weren’t to know that. The case I have in mind is the habitual teacher-pleaser. This is the sort of person who may well offer to do things they can’t possibly do, and who may well jump at any suggestion. I think it is a sad case, and I regret not being able to find a warmer way to say it. Perhaps here one still has the obligation to avoid mentioning things that could actually harm the person, etc.

    I must spend more time on these things.

  21. Yeah. We might not disagree :)

    I think the burden is on the one in the more powerful position to do everything they reasonably can to block these sorts of situations. This is why, for example, I think the policy on faculty dating students should be a zero tolerance policy.

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