University of Colorado sociology professor Patti Adler
University of Colorado sociology professor Patti Adler (Courtesy photo)

University of Colorado officials acknowledged Monday that sociology professor Patti Adler's lecture on prostitution led them to suspend her from teaching her popular "Deviance in U.S. Society" course next spring -- but they denied firing her or forcing her into retirement.

Adler announced during a lecture for that course last Thursday that she was being forced out of the university because her course's skit on prostitution was seen as a "risk" to CU.

"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," CU Provost Russell Moore wrote in an email to students, faculty and staff on Monday. "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."

In that email, Moore wrote that Adler -- a tenured professor -- has not been dismissed, fired, forced to retire or coerced into retirement.

Adler, however, told the Daily Camera on Monday that university administrators gave her an ultimatum: take a buyout and retire, or stay at the university but not teach her signature class next semester.

Provost's message

Message from Provost Russell Moore to the campus community regarding the status of sociology professor Patti Adler:

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

The second option came with a caveat, Adler said. If the administration received even one complaint about her, Adler said she was told she would be fired immediately, without retirement benefits.

Adler, 62, said she has not decided whether to accept the buyout or remain at CU.

Boulder campus spokesman Mark Miller said he could not comment on any offer Adler may have received from CU.

"We do not buy out faculty members, but what was offered to Professor Adler is really between her and the administration," Miller said.

In the email to the CU community, Moore suggested that Adler may have violated the university's sexual harassment policy.

He said academic freedom protects those who teach controversial, uncomfortable or unpopular subjects, but does not protect faculty members who "violate the university's sexual harassment policy by creating a hostile environment for their teaching assistants, or for their students attending the class."

Moore went on to say that any employee at CU who violates the sexual harassment policy is subject to discipline -- including termination.

He said it was not the subject matter of Adler's course that is "in question," but that it was the "manner in which the material was presented in one particular classroom exercise" that led the university to suspend Adler from teaching her deviance course next semester.

'No guarantee I would ever be able to go back'

Adler said during a meeting with CU administrators earlier this month she was offered a buyout consisting of two years' salary paid over five years. The alternative was to stay at the university, but not teach her deviance course next semester.

Though she was suspended from the deviance course for just one semester, Adler said she doubts she'd be permitted to teach that class again after the suspension.

Adler said sociology chair Joanne Belknap decides which professors teach which courses, and that it was Belknap who went to the Office of Discrimination and Harassment about the prostitution lecture earlier this fall.

Belknap did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

"There's no guarantee I would ever be able to go back (to teaching the course deviance) or not," Adler said.

Adler said she's not sure if she wants to stay at CU and live in fear of losing her family's health insurance and other retirement benefits if one complaint is filed against her. Her husband, University of Denver sociology professor Peter Adler, recently was on leave for six months for an undisclosed medical condition.

"That is a risk that really scares me," she said. "I can't afford to take that kind of risk."

Adler and her husband are vacationing in Maui, where they own a home and spend time during breaks in the academic year. She said the university gave her a Jan. 6 deadline to sign the buyout, which she said would begin Dec. 31 even if she signs the contract after that.

"I'm still trying to get my head to stop whirling," she said. "I need to figure out what's best for my family and me. I want to try to let things calm down and discuss this. It's going to affect my husband's work and our lives."

Prostitution skit a 'risk' to the university

According to Adler, one of her teaching assistants went to Belknap, the chair of the sociology department, earlier this fall about plans to present the prostitution lecture as a skit.

The teaching assistant worried that the undergraduates who portray prostitutes in the skit might feel uncomfortable talking to Adler if they didn't want to perform. Those undergraduates are assistant teaching assistants, or ATAs, and receive credit for helping with lectures, administrative tasks and grading exams.

Belknap then went to CU's Office of Discrimination and Harassment, Adler said, and two investigators from the office attended the Nov. 5 lecture on prostitution.

During the lecture, many of Adler's assistant teaching assistants portrayed prostitutes ranging from sex slaves to escorts, and described for the class their lifestyles.

On Dec. 5, Adler said she was invited to a meeting that included the two investigators, College of Arts and Sciences Dean Steven Leigh, Associate Dean Ann Carlos and a member of the university's legal team.

"They said this skit was a risk to the university," Adler said. "(The two investigators) scared the administrators so much that the administrators said I have to be taken out of the deviance class and that they offered me a buyout. I could get this two-for-five deal, but I have to take it right now.

"And it just felt like an ignominious push out the door."

Adler said the Office of Discrimination and Harassment had received no complaints and there was no complainant in the investigation. Adler said the investigators told her they waited a few weeks, but no one came forward saying they were offended by the skit.

During the skit, one of the actors playing a prostitute spoke in an Eastern European accent and said she'd been sold into sex slavery, Adler said.

Also during the skit, an actor portraying a male prostitute used the word "faggot," Adler said, and the actor pretending to be a pimp said that "the bottom of his shoes would make a bitch's face look like a wavy Lay's potato chip."

"They thought it was trivializing the portrayal of violence," Adler said.

The professor, who's taught at CU since 1987, said the skit "enlivens visibly the stratification hierarchy of prostitutes." The actors talk about their education, family, how they got into prostitution, the risks involved and their future.

"The skit has high educational value and high pedagogical value," Adler said. "Then we follow that up with an education exercise that makes students reflect on (the skit) and what they learned from it."

On Dec. 6, Adler said there was a contract in her university mailbox for the buyout.

'They're witch hunters'

Adler said she wasn't sure how this situation could end positively, but added that university administrators should consider changing the way the Office of Discrimination and Harassment works on campus.

"They are witch hunters," she said. "And to be accused, to be investigated, is to be guilty. You're assumed to be guilty with no due process. It's a culture of fear, a culture of political correctness and power of (the Office of Discrimination and Harassment)."

Peter Adler said his wife "loved" CU and was actively involved with the university outside of teaching. Her post at CU elevated the status of the university among sociologists worldwide, he said.

"For the University of Colorado to lose Patti is to lose star power," he said. "She was a loyal CU faculty member. She loved the place."

Students have organized a protest in support of Patti Adler on Jan. 3 on the Boulder campus.

A person who identified himself as Patti Adler's son, Brye Adler, posted on the Change.org petition to save Patti Adler's job.

The petition, which was created late last week by students, had more than 2,300 signatures on Monday evening.

"The last couple of weeks have been heartbreaking to watch as my mother has been threatened, intimidated, manipulated and lied to by the school for which she worked for 27 years," Brye Adler wrote.

Contact Staff Writer Sarah Kuta at 303-473-1106, kutas@dailycamera.com or twitter.com/sarahkuta.