Not long ago, the University of Colorado at Boulder reportedly issued sociologist Patricia Adler a veiled ultimatum: take a buyout now or risk being fired in the future.
The issue: her famous prostitution lecture. Professor Adler does not give the run of the mill “prostitution is bad and prostitutes are evil” kind of lecture. She humanizes prostitutes during her deviance course. Students dress up as and learn the experiences of various types of prostitutes—enslaved, crack and escorts, to name a few. During the interactive lecture, Adler asks these role-playing students how they entered the business, how much they charge, what services they provide and the risks they face, she explained to Inside Higher Ed.
For any true intellectual, for any true teacher, for any true learner seeking to relate to subjects of study, it is not hard to see why her deviance course regularly enrolls 500 students; why her prostitution lecture is the highlight of the course; why academics across the nation are reeling in frustration; and why her students were stunned, saddened, and angered when she notified them on Thursday she was leaving the university. Provost Russell Moore sent an email to students, faculty and staff on Monday saying Adler is being suspended from teaching the class. I wish I could enroll in her deviance class and listen to the prostitution lecture. I am stunned, saddened and angered, too.
According to Adler, Steven Leigh, dean of Boulder’s College of Arts and Sciences, told her that a former teaching assistant raised a concern that some participants may be uncomfortable. However, none complained.
I totally understand a dean being alarmed if Adler were forcing students to act as prostitutes and grading them on their acts. But once Alder confirmed their participation was voluntary and did not impact their grades, the conversation should have ended. What else is there to talk about? Instead, the conservation continued and became nauseating for any lover of academic freedom.
Leigh told her, says Adler, that there was “too much risk” in the university having the prostitution lecture in the “post-Penn State environment,” referring to the Jerry Sandusky nightmare. Leigh then put the ultimatum on the table: accept a buyout or stay and not teach the course and be aware that if anyone complained about her teaching she could be fired and lose her retirement and health benefits.
Adler was stunned. I would be stunned, too. She was being punished for a popular lecture in a popular course. “It’s a culture of fear,” Adler told Inside Higher Ed. “It’s the bureaucratization of the university.”
The fear of a scandal should never be greater at a university than the love of learning. Boulder fears making students uncomfortable instead of seeking to make students know the truth about the real world, no matter how uncomfortable it makes them.
A culture fearing discomfort is incompatible with a culture that loves intellectualism. To be an intellectual is to be one who does not shy away from discomfort—the discomfort of someone or some idea constructively challenging and redrawing a person’s picture of the world. How else do we learn more, know more, develop and refine our thoughts? And if professors are not modeling intellectual activity, if we are not teaching our students to be intellectuals, then what are we doing?
For years, Adler has constructively challenged and redrew students’ portraits of prostitution. And I am sure for years students have sat there in discomfort—and there is nothing wrong with that—just as students sit in discomfort all over the nation when they are constructively enlightened about a myriad of other social issues in our society. Just like students of color sit in discomfort when professors spew racist ideas. LGBT students sit in discomfort when professors spew homophobic ideas. Women sit in discomfort when professors spew sexist ideas. Atheists sit in discomfort when professors spew their Christian ideas. Radical students sit in discomfort when professors spew liberal ideas. Conservative students sit in discomfort when professors spew liberal ideas. Student prostitutes sit in discomfort when professors condemn them as evil. Hardly ever do the unpopular, hated conservative, Eurocentric, racist, sexist, homophobic, and/or Christian professor who has made a career of making students uncomfortable get ultimatums thrown in their face. And I do not think they should! Because I believe in three things Boulder does not—diversity of ideas, academic freedom and intellectualism.
Dr. Ibram X. Kendi (formerly Ibram H. Rogers) is an assistant professor of Africana studies at the University at Albany — SUNY. He is the author of The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965-1972. Follow on Twitter @DrIbram