Update: Inside Higher Ed now reports that UC-Boulder has backed down from its suggestion that controversial teaching be prospectively approved by the university's IRB. On Monday, Provost Russell L. Moore sent the following email to faculty (emphasis mine):
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...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 . . . .
According to Adler, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Steven Leigh told her that a former TA "had raised a concern that some participants might be uncomfortable, but that none had in fact complained." She says Leigh told her that the lecture posed "too much risk" in a "post-Penn State environment," alluding to the Jerry Sandusky scandal. (That shift in "environment" presumably explains why Adler has taught both the course and this particular class twice per year for over 20 years without incident, until now.)
One of Adler's chief complaints is that, she says, the university gave her no opportunity to react to its concerns about the lecture before initiating buyout proceedings. But university spokesman Mark J. Miller shed some light on that, suggesting that Adler should have sought prospective approval for her pedagogical exercise from the university IRB:
CU-Boulder does not discourage teaching controversial topics but there has to be a legitimate educational basis for what is being taught in the classroom. In all cases involving people in research or teaching, whether controversial or not, we want to insist on best practices to ensure full regulatory compliance. In some cases, this could involve review from our Institutional Review Board, which is responsible for regulatory compliance involving human subjects.
It's not immediately clear what "regulatory compliance" Miller is worried that Adler's skit would fail to meet. Confronted with the obvious objection that IRBs regulate research, not teaching, Miller shifted from talk of "regulatory compliance" to talk of "best practices," but otherwise doubled down: "Students did participate in the lecture. All we are saying is that it is a best practice to go to the IRB."
So, in this "post-Penn State" world, the best response to one university failing to react to evidence of serial rape and sexual molestation is to license teaching exercises in order to avoid the hypothetical risk that a teacher's classroom exercise about sex might make a student "uncomfortable," despite no evidence that that exercise had had this effect during the past 20 years?
I'll let Adler have the last word about this brave new world of IRB review of teaching:
Adler said that the incident showed that if a lecture makes anyone uncomfortable, the university will ignore common sense and worry more about "the risk" someone might be offended than whether this is information professors have a right to teach, and students have a right to learn.
"It's a culture of fear. It's the bureaucratization of the university," she said.