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Tenured Prof Forced Out for Class about Prostitution

Tenured Prof Forced Out for Class about Prostitution

By Dennis Loo (12/16/13)

Inside Higher Education is reporting today that tenured Sociology Professor Patricia Adler at the University of Colorado at Boulder is being forced into retirement for a class lecture/discussion about prostitution. The course is about Deviance. Prostitution is a bread and butter part of any Deviance class. Indeed, the long-standing, half-joking way to describe sociology's treatment of Deviance is "Nuts, Sluts and Perverts." In the class session, which she has been doing for twenty years without complaint and to the highest of praise from her students, volunteer teaching assistants portray various kinds of prostitutes and are interviewed by the class to illustrate the different varieties of prostitutes and their life experiences.

As Inside Higher Education reported about this class of 500 students and the specific lecture that is the highlight of her signature course:

"Patti Adler's deviance class was the best class I have ever taken. In particular, the interactive prostitution lecture was the most memorable and informative lecture I have ever experienced. It was in no way offensive.... It was real," wrote one student on an online petition demanding that Boulder keep her, without barring her from teaching the deviance course.

On a Facebook page of students organizing a rally to condemn what is happening to Adler, another student wrote: "Patti has been one of the most influential people in my life. Not only has she taught me about how to view society, but she has helped me realize what really happens in this world. The prostitution skit was a learning experience, and the university needs to open their eyes if they have such a problem with what happens in the real world. Patti's passion for deviance and every other subject deserves to be preserved, and she is what a fantastic professor SHOULD look like. Let's make the administration feel like they made the biggest mistake they could."

After Adler broke the news to her class, many students were in tears, and they gave her a standing ovation, followed by many hugs.

So what is the problem?

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.

She 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. 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.

The ultimatum stunned her, Adler said. She said it was a violation of her academic freedom to be told that she couldn't teach the lecture or the course. But she said she feared the impact of losing her retirement benefits if she stayed and got fired later. "This is health insurance my family depends on," she said.

When I first read the headline for this story my first thought was, what did this professor do, demonstrate a prostitute doing her job in class? I could see how that would cause problems. But when I read the article, I found out what this was, as described by Dr. Adler:

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.

So the UCB administration is equating the Jerry Sandusky pedophilia scandal to a sociology course's section on prostitution and views its content as "too much risk." In addition, they tell a tenured professor who has been teaching this same course and giving this same section on prostitution for two decades without any problems and in fact, to high praise from students, that she must either stop teaching that course, stop giving the lecture, or face the possibility of being fired if anyone ever complained about her in the future.

As a professor myself, I can tell you that it is impossible to teach and never have any disgruntled students. If you're doing a good job and exposing students to things that will make them think and question things (which is necessary to becoming a good thinker), then you will make students uncomfortable. If you're not making them uncomfortable at least some of the time, you're not doing your job as a teacher, especially as a teacher in higher education.

The attitude that risks need to be avoided at all costs is altogether too pervasive not only in education but throughout the society. It is one thing, for example, to attempt to at least minimize having athletes end up being seriously brain damaged from concussions, and another to shield students from deviant lifestyles and challenging ideas. Unfortunately, all too many university and school administrators see themselves as business providers anxious not to antagonize their "customers" and abandon what their role ought to be - to defend academic freedom and the central importance of educating people. You cannot educate people and you cannot teach them to think if you are frightened of any complaints and any controversy and cave at the least suggestion of either. You cannot run a university based on a "risk assessment" paradigm (aka public order policies) anymore than you can run a society based on said paradigm. See this for further discussion of these issues in relation to higher education.

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