University of Colorado sociology professor Patti Adler has axed the prostitution skit in her "Deviance in U.S. Society" course that led administrators to pull her from the classroom last semester and sparked widespread controversy about academic freedom.
The tenured professor cited difficulty with consent forms and worries among participants after the class and the skit drew national attention in recent months.
"I think the notoriety that the university brought to it made people just feel too sensitive to be able to participate," Adler said Monday. "Nobody ever heard of it before. It was through the students, for the students, by the students. For a variety of reasons, participants got too nervous and uncomfortable to do it.
"We were all having nightmares, myself included, literally."
Adler was the subject of controversy starting in December after she said she was investigated by CU's Office of Discrimination and Harassment for one of her lectures on prostitution, which was taught with a skit involving undergraduate teaching assistants.
The professor said she was informed the skit was a "risk" to the university, and was told she could retire immediately with an incentive package or return to campus for the spring semester, but not teach her popular course on deviance.
After announcing they had removed Adler from the class, university administrators reversed course and ultimately allowed Adler to return and teach "Deviance" this spring.
Though she consulted legal advice and considered an early retirement, Adler said she returned to Boulder to teach her course to stand up for due process and academic freedom, and because of the support she received from students, past students, faculty members and national organizations.
But after weeks of grappling with nervous undergraduate teaching assistants — who perform the roles of various types of prostitutes and pimps — and finding it difficult to obtain or create consent forms for the participants and the student audience, Adler decided to cancel the skit.
"We respect Professor Adler's decision not to hold the skit," CU spokesman Ryan Huff said.
The prostitution lecture had been given as a skit in which many of Adler's teaching assistants dressed up as various types of prostitutes. The students portrayed prostitutes ranging from sex slaves to escorts, and described their lifestyles as part of a lesson in social stratification and hierarchy, Adler said.
In a letter to CU students, faculty and affiliates in December, Provost Russ Moore wrote that many teaching assistants said they felt coerced into participating in the skit, and suggested that Adler may have violated the university's sexual harassment policy.
A committee within the Boulder Faculty Assembly has been looking into what happened to Adler, and is expected to issue a report on the situation on May 1.
Faculty review of course
After her course was reviewed by a faculty committee, Adler decided to return to campus this semester, with the intention of retiring this summer.
She said she has been teaching the 500-person course as she has for years, and had planned to proceed with the prostitution lecture and skit. But then one skit participant's parents were worried, another participant's boyfriend was worried, Adler said, and several dropped out.
She also had trouble identifying what type of consent forms she should use for both participants and the student audience members during the prostitution lecture, she said.
The ad hoc faculty committee that reviewed the course recommended in early January that Adler document that those involved give "full informed consent to participate, including the possibility of being filmed, and can opt out of participation at any time without penalty."
While trying to accommodate that recommendation, Adler said she consulted many people within the university and could not easily find answers to her questions.
"Was there an appropriate consent form for some sort of classroom exercise?" she said. "No, there is no such thing."
Adler said when she approached university officials about what type of consent form she should use, they took too much time getting back to her and she had to make a decision.
Huff said the university did provide Adler with a consent form, which the student participants in the skit could have signed to demonstrate that their performance was "entirely knowing and voluntary."
If they had signed the form, the students would have granted Adler the "irrevocable" right to any images or video footage of the performance. The form also asked participants to acknowledge that student audience members may have filmed the skit and distributed it on social media, though they would be asked not to.
In the end, Adler canceled the controversial skit and invited local sex workers to her class. She hosted the sex workers in her "Deviance" course last Thursday, she said.
Adler interviewed the sex workers in front of the class, and then allowed the students to ask the visitors questions.
Though the in-class interview didn't replace the skit, Adler said many students stayed after class to talk with the sex workers.
"I thought the students at least deserved something moderately exciting," she said.
Adler is set to retire after teaching "Deviance" during Maymester, the one-month intensive semester in May.
But after months of uncertainty about the status of her career, Adler said she will be somewhat busy this year with speaking engagements about the controversy.
Later this week, Adler will deliver a keynote address at Yale University titled "Administrative Interference and Overreach: The 'Adler Controversy' and the 21st Century University."
Adler said she was invited to talk about the topic by the organizers of an ethnography conference being held Thursday, Friday and Saturday in New Haven, Conn.
Adler's situation attracted attention from groups such as the American Association of University Professors and the Colorado chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. Adler said she has received emails from people all over the world.
Adler said she has three other speaking engagements lined up, some as far away as Denmark.
She said people are interested in hearing her story "because it's not an isolated case."