Tuesday, December 24, 2013

"Sandusky's Ghost" and the Weaponizing of Scandal--Administrative Disciplining of Faculty at the University of Colorado

The Penn State sex abuse scandal centering on its former coach's abuse of small children on campus has already begun to morph from an important milestone in administrative oversight to a weapon in the hands of administrators looking to undermine academic freedom. Here we begin to move from sex abuse to disciplining faculty teaching courses that administrators dislike. When this weaponization of scandal is undertaken by a state university ought to be even more troubling.

("From left, University of Colorado Provost Russell Moore, Arts and Sciences Dean Steven Leigh and Boulder Faculty Assembly Chair Paul Chinowski hold a news conference Dec. 18 to discuss the controversy around sociology professor Patti Adler s prostitution skit in the Deviance in U.S. Society class. (Cliff Grassmick / Daily Camera)" story at Sarah Kuta, Top 10 local news stories of 2013: No. 10 - Brouhaha over Patti Adler's prostitution skit , Daily Camera, Dec. 21, 2013)

Recently, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) joined its Colorado state conference in condemning the University of Colorado-Boulder's treatment of sociology professor Patricia Adler. The University of Colorado, of course, has chosen silence over disclosure in the hopes of riding out the storm. And they may succeed. Yet, the AAUP has suggested that reports in the media and the testimony of many faculty and students at Boulder make clear that there has been an unwarranted and egregious violation of her academic freedom, specifically her right as a faculty member to select her own instructional methods within the broad parameters of her discipline and university policies.

This post includes brief thoughts on this matter and the text of the "AAUP Statement on the University of Colorado's Treatment of Professor Patricia Adler."

December 20, 2013

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) joins its Colorado state conference in condemning the University of Colorado-Boulder's treatment of sociology professor Patricia Adler. Although the university has not made public its own account of what transpired between university representatives and Prof. Adler, reports in the media and the testimony of many faculty and students at Boulder make clear that there has been an unwarranted and egregious violation of her academic freedom, specifically her right as a faculty member to select her own instructional methods within the broad parameters of her discipline and university policies.

The controversy derives from Prof. Adler's use of student assistants to impersonate various kinds of prostitutes in a large lecture class on "Deviance in U.S Society."Although some facts remain murky, it is clear that Adler has used the technique for many years without incident or recorded complaint. Recently, however, representatives of the university's Office of Discrimination and Harassment showed up at her class unannounced, apparently in response to concerns raised by one of Adler's teaching assistants. However, neither that student,  nor any other, filed a complaint about the class. Nevertheless, subsequently, Adler claims, she was asked by a dean to accept a buyout and retire or risk costly disciplinary penalties, including the loss of her retirement benefits. She says that she was also told she could not teach the class again. The university has neither confirmed nor fully denied this account.

Whatever took place between university officials and Prof. Adler in private, however, the university's justifications for its actions have shifted daily. Originally, Dean Stephen Leigh claimed that there was "too much risk" in having such a lecture in the "post-Penn State environment," alluding to the Jerry Sandusky scandal. How volunteer students acting out roles in a classroom exercise is equivalent to the forcible violation of underage boys by a retired coach in a locker room remained unclear. The university then claimed that the exercise violated the university's human subjects policy and should have been approved by the Institutional Review Board. But they backed off that explanation when members of the board and others pointed out that IRBs focus on research, not classroom activities.

In an email to the university community Provost Russell Moore then suggested that the exercise violated the university's sexual harassment policy. However, that policy maintains that "[r]obust discussion and debate are fundamental to the life of the University. Consequently, this policy shall be interpreted in a manner that is consistent with academic freedom." The AAUP's own suggested policies for handling sexual harassment complaints states that if such harassment "takes place in the teaching context, it must also be persistent, pervasive, and not germane to the subject matter. The academic setting is distinct from the workplace in that wide latitude is required for professional judgment in determining the appropriate content and presentation of academic material." 
Then, several days into the controversy and shortly after a closed-door meeting with faculty representatives, the university suddenly raised a new issue, which it now said was "the main concern," claiming that students were being photographed or filmed without their consent during the skit. "With any course involving something unusual, like photographing students, we ask for consent forms to be signed," Dean 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."

The video or audio recording of faculty and students in a classroom without their consent may well be problematic. But the university administration has offered no evidence to suggest that such recording actually took place, much less that it was Prof. Adler's doing. Moreover, there are clearly far less obtrusive methods of dealing with such issues than canceling a class. To cancel a controversial classroom exercise merely because it might possibly be photographed surreptitiously would in itself amount to an egregious violation of academic freedom and deprive students and faculty alike of an important learning experience.

The university now says that whatever happened between its representatives and Prof. Adler, they have now "reversed course." They are asking that the class be reviewed by Prof. Adler's peers in the sociology department. Unfortunately, this remains problematic. From media accounts it appears that Prof. Adler and her department chair have longstanding differences.Whatever these differences may amount to, it is clear that at minimum any judgment within the department will lack the necessary appearance of fairness. More important, however, we see no reason why in the absence of any documented and serious complaints Prof. Adler's course should be subjected to a level of peer supervision and review not mandated for other courses in the sociology department.

Universities exist to challenge people's beliefs and assumptions, including in controversial subjects like sexuality.That Prof. Adler has taught this course and used this provocative technique for years without complaint should be taken as testimony to her skills as an instructor.m Certainly it would appear that her students appreciate this. We are heartened by the several statements by students in support of Prof. Adler's teaching and by the student-sponsored online petition signed by over 3,000 people demanding that Colorado-Boulder "keep Patti Adler as a Professor."

The AAUP does not deny that there are instances in which instructors conduct themselves in the classroom in a manner worthy of disciplinary action. But there must be credible and concrete evidence of such misconduct and any faculty member so charged should be entitled to due process. While we recognize that all the facts may not be public, what is known in this instance makes clear that the university has been inconsistent in its rationale and hasty in its judgments. Therefore, we strongly urge the University of Colorado-Boulder administration to make a clear statement affirming that Professor Adler has not been forced to resign over the skit on prostitution that took place in her class and that she will be allowed to teach the course in the future.


The AAUP statement is useful.  But it is not clear it goes far enough.  The University of Colorado's administrators have by their words and actions suggested quite clearly that they have every intention of using the institutional machinery of university administration, with the collusion of like minded faculty, and the support of those whose cultural sensibilities and political power all of these people wish to curry, to eliminate a faculty member who, to them, does not conform to cultural expectations and sensibilities of those with authority within and without the university.  In the face of a century's long culture of academic freedom, this recitation of university administrative behavior is sufficient to shift, and quite forcefully, the onus on the administration to prove that indeed the objectives were not to censor a class and eliminate an unwelcome professor.  But that will not happen.  Administrators at the University of Colorado will likely continue to hide behind the forms of academic freedom in order to undo it and they will continue to weaponize cultural sensibilities to censor the consideration of issues that, while uncomfortable, remain vital areas of discussion, and controversy, within this Republic. This is particularly the case with respect to the quite clever strategic uses of peer assessment (a discretionary and serendipitous use of the  tool) and the subtle shifting of responsibility for potential violations of student privacy rights by other students in the classroom, from the offending students to the faculty member. It is quite possible that with respect to both tactics, the university's application of these "tools" has been at best inconsistent.

And best of all, the initial use of Penn State's Sandusky scandal as a fig leaf beneath which all administrative decisions  are justifiable suggest that administrators have begun to seize on Penn State's scandal as a fetish invocation of which provides instant legitimacy to administrative acts, and dispels all efforts to hold such administrators accountable. I wonder, given the waffling described, why it is that the administrators are not themselves the subject of review to the extent that the university has accorded attention to Prof. Adler.  But, I would be told--be patient, years from now when these administrators come up for their opaque and non transparent administrative reviews all will be assessed.  This is much too thin a reed onto which to build a sound academic house grounded in principles that both reflect the fundamental values of this Republic and the public mission of state universities to further them by words and deeds.

One of the more interesting and least discussed aspects of this episode has been the role played by the Colorado-Boulder faculty Senate, the Colorado-Boulder Faculty Assembly.  I have seen the pictures of the Senate representatives at news events (see above), but I am unaware of any statement made by the Senate leadership or the Senate on this issue.  Certainly that might add a bit of nuance to the stories we have seen. Yet, beyond the specifics of Professor Adler's case, the administration's actions raise issues that touch on faculty rights and responsibilities in a general way and implicates the control relationship between faculty, departments and administrators to an extent that it ought to be of at least general interest to the Faculty Assembly.  Perhaps we will hear more from them later.  Perhaps they are working behind the scenes.  Indeed, in that vein we have this from the Chair of the Faculty Assembly:

Boulder Faculty Assembly chairman Paul Chinowsky said he could not comment on Adler's situation because it is a personnel matter. However, Chinowsky did say that there is a system in place to review the potential dismissal of tenured faculty members.

Chinowsky said a tenured faculty member has the opportunity for review at the department, college, campus and system level. He said faculty members cannot be dismissed without "significant review and consideration."

"No tenured faculty can be forced out without appropriate and quite detailed review of the case at several governance levels," he said. "Faculty understand that and most would tell you they believe the system operates appropriately." (Sarah Kuta,  CU-Boulder students: Tenured professor Patti Adler being forced out because of prostitution lecture, Daily Camera, Dec. 13, 2013)

These statements are appropriate and correct.  But they also sound like having consigned Professor Adler to the tender mercies of the faculty grievance mechanisms, the Faculty Assembly itself might avoid the harder questions raised by these administration actions, one that may touch on university policy and the application of academic freedom principles generally. I look forward to hearing more from them.  But while I agree that the specifics of the Adler case are probably now well within the  processes for faculty grievances, the larger issues raised, issues that the university administration continues to champion beyond the confines of the Adler grievance processes, deserves sustained attention from the Faculty Assembly. Indeed, university administration efforts to guide notions of appropriate pedagogy appear have been growing in recent years. (e.g., Engaged Scholarship--De-Centering Faculty From Research and Teaching in a Relentless March Toward a Training Model for Middle Tier Universities?). And this should be of more than passing interest. Still, what we do have on this score is this (itself perhaps a sad testimonial to the lack of vibrant transparency cultures):

University of Colorado officials told faculty members in a closed-door meeting Wednesday that there have been long-term concerns about tenured sociology professor Patti Adler's course "Deviance in U.S. Society."

"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.

During the 70-minute meeting, which was closed to the media and the public, many faculty members angrily expressed their concerns and frustrations with the situation surrounding Adler.

Adler, who teaches the 500-person deviance course, asks undergraduate teaching assistants to portray prostitutes in a skit as part of one lecture. Adler told the Camera earlier this week that the skit was investigated by the Office of Discrimination and Harassment, which found it to be a "risk" to the university, she said.

From there, administrators gave her an ultimatum, she said. Adler said she was told she could take a buyout and retire immediately, or have the course reviewed by the sociology department. (Sara Kuta, CU-Boulder officials: Patti Adler's deviance course has prompted long-term concern: Audio recording of closed faculty meeting provided to Daily Camera, Daily Camera, Dec. 18, 2013 (a link to the audio recording of the meeting can be found at the web site of the story HERE); see also Sarah Kuta, CU-Boulder: Patti Adler could teach deviance course again if it passes review, Daily Camera, Dec. 17, 2013). 
This "emergency closed door meeting included about 30 members of the faculty assembly and the Dean of Arts and Sciences." (Emergency Meeting Held At CU To Discuss Controversial Professor, CBS Denver, Dec. 18, 2013). But it might also suggest the sort of passivity and lack of engagement in the context of academic freedom that produces a long term and slow erosion of its protections. The faculty is given an opportunity to "blow off steam" and then cooler administrative heads can direct those feelings by managing the structures of academic  operation to suit their objectives.

The university that is the subject of this AAUP report has done a marvelous job lawyering their possible questionable actions away from an examination of their conduct and motives to the issue of the limits (important in theory but irrelevant it the precise nature of their actions in this case) of academic freedom.  That deflection has served them well, even before the AAUP.  That is a pity, but they ought to be completed for their sill in perhaps continuation the inadvertent undermining of academic freedom by using the tools of academic freedom itself.


  1. While Boulder Faculty Assembly chairman Paul Chinowsky may see this as a "personal issue" where Dr. Adler is concerned, he is missing the point that any faculty member at CU can apparently be disciplined if a student MIGHT complain. Beyond the fact that it was Dr. Adler's class that drew the attention, it is not her personally at issue here but the fact that the University did not follow its own procedures, did not give Dr. Adler a fair hearing, and has not even received a complaint. All of this is happening because someone might complain. Any professor with whiney students (which means all of us) could be subject to the same treatment, making this far from a personal issue relevant solely to Dr. Adler's case.

  2. Today, in response to requests by the local AAUP chapter, the Administration of the University of Colorado has refused to retract the inflammatory and unsubstantiated letter from the Provost, alleging that Dr. Adler engaged in sexual harassment by teaching her course through the skit involving students role-paying prostitutes' biographies. It also refuses to apologize to Dr. Adler. Despite a hue and cry against the University's actions, they are, as usual, stonewalling on their original position and circling their wagons.