17 December 2013

Tenure and Due Process at the University of Colorado

UPDATE Dec 18: It appears that CU officials have come to their senses and are wisely backing down, at least according to this new article in The Daily Camera. Kuods to Sarah Kuta for her reporting on this.

Original post follows . . .

The Boulder Daily Camera reports:
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.
The issue here involves a skit that Professor Patricia Adler put on in her class back in November in which students dress up as different types of prostitutes and engage in a role play before the class. Adler is a full professor here at CU in the Department of Sociology, and while a colleague of mine, I don't think we've ever met.

The "suspension" is apparently a matter of sexual harassment. CU Provost Russ Moore wrote to the campus community yesterday explaining:
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.
As described by Provost Moore, the environment created by Professor Adler would indeed be covered by the University's policy on sexual harassment. The relevant part of that policy states:
Sexual harassment consists of interaction between individuals of the same or opposite sex that is characterized by unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual  nature when . . . such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual's work or  academic performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working or educational environment.
However, at this time it does not appear that Professor Adler has actually been charged with any violation of this policy, much less been investigated, found guilty or sanctioned. Provost Moore explains:
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.
Here is where it gets a bit unclear and definitely troubling:
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. . .

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. . .

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.
This is weird for several reasons.

First, department chairs usually determine what classes their faculty teach based on all sorts of criteria. I've even had the experience of a chair telling me that I could no longer teach a "signature class." I didn't like it, and I suppose I could have appealed at various levels -- CU even has a faculty ombudsman. Sociology could have easily ginned up an air-tight justification for taking Adler off this course -- teaching needs, faculty balance, program emphasis, whatever. That they didn't speaks either to some serious ham-handedness or other things going on.

Second, the alleged "buyout" coupled with the threat of being fired without retirement benefits (We get retirement benefits!?) is simply bizarre. Professors simply cannot be fired because of a complaint. There is a very involved set of procedures which govern "Faculty Dismissal for Cause." The idea that the administration would threaten a faculty member in this way sounds like the Keystone Cops, or even worse, an invitation to be sued.

Also strange is the fact that there is apparently no complainant and no actual accusations related to sexual harassment:
Adler said, and two investigators from the [University of Colorado Office of Discrimination an Harassment] 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.
Instead, there is more than a hint of political correctness in the air. The Daily Camera reports:
Administrators allegedly told Adler that in the era of sex scandals at schools like Penn State University, they couldn't let her keep teaching.
As a University of Colorado faculty member, a tenured full professor like Adler, I find this situation to be extremely concerning. I am also concerned because next semester I am teaching a course in which issues of gender, sex, discrimination, race and other potentially sensitive topics appear throughout the syllabus. Will I be at risk of losing my job if university officials don't like how I teach these issues? What if a student is "uncomfortable" because of the material or exercises in the class?

Adler says of this situation:
"They are witch hunters. 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)."
I hope that the Boulder Faculty Assembly takes on this case in defense of Adler's academic freedom and right to due process. Based on the information available, it looks like campus leadership has made some serious mistakes. They need to be rectified. University officials might find that with more episodes like the one currently involving Professor Adler they won't need to offer its faculty buy-outs to get them to leave.