irb creep watch

More could be said regarding reports of the situation with Patti Adler at the University of Colorado at Boulder, but this part toward the bottom of the Inside Higher Ed story caught my eye:

[A]sked whether there were concerns about the prostitution lecture and whether they were expressed to Adler, [spokesman Mark J.] Miller said: “Yes. 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.”

Adler responded that IRBs are for research, not teaching. […]

Asked about IRBs being for research, not teaching, Miller said,”Students did participate in the lecture. All we are saying is that it is a best practice to go to the IRB.”


Author: jeremy

I am the Ethel and John Lindgren Professor of Sociology and a Faculty Fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

23 thoughts on “irb creep watch”

  1. I have been on the IRB board at Georgia State University for almost 3 years. GSU’s IRB is strict but something like this would not become an IRB issue even though students are involved because it is not research. If a professor has students in a class conduct there own survey, the professor would seek approval through the institutional research unit, not the IRB. Miller’s comments are clearly uninformed.


  2. Terrifying. If I were faculty there I would consider organizing a large group of us to start submitting every single daily lesson plan to the IRB in protest. Perhaps the IRB would like to hear my musings on which of two textbooks I’m trying to choose between?


  3. CJ Pascoe raised this on Facebook. In response I wrote to Joseph G. Rosse, Associate VC of Research Integrity and Compliance at CU:

    Dear Dr. Rosse:

    As I’m sure you know, a CU spokesperson, Mark J. Miller, has stated publicly that “it is a best practice to go to the IRB” for classroom lecture activities. This is in reference to the controversial case of Dr. Adler’s lecture on prostitution.

    This represents an extreme misinterpretation of the IRB’s authority and role, and I would encourage you to clarify publicly, as well as to Mr.
    Miller, that classroom activities are not subject to IRB review unless they involve systematic data collection (research). Such clarification seems necessary to insure both the integrity of the IRB and the academic freedom necessary to excellent classroom instruction.

    Best wishes,
    Andrew Perrin, Ph.D.

    cc: Mark J. Miller
    Steven Leigh

    …and he responded:

    Dear Professor Perrin:

    Thank you for your note. You are quite correct regarding the misunderstanding about the appropriate role of IRBs, which is limited to the review of research activities. Our Provost will be providing a clarification in a memo to the campus this afternoon.

    However, the statement issued by the Provost doesn’t mention the IRB question at all. (Statement here, scroll to the bottom.)


  4. Apologies in advance if this hijacks the thread, and by way of disclaimer, I don’t know Dr. Adler or have any inside information. In the light of the Provost’s memo, now I’m wondering if anybody more in the know can shed light on the back-story. The IRB question is clearly a sideshow, probably a comment inserted by a university spokesman who didn’t know better. So:

    – Was Dr. Adler the subject of controversy at CU in the past? Has administration there been hostile to her before?

    – The Provost’s memo implies (without actually stating) that TA(s) complained that their roles constituted sexual harassment. Is this plausible? If so, what should faculty teaching in controversial ways do to keep from unintentionally committing harassment in such situations, without altering intellectual content or style?

    – It’s grading season. Is it possible this was started by someone disgruntled with his/her grade?


    1. I don’t know this first hand, but I have heard that she does have a reputation of being controversial. Whether or not this has anything to due with this particular incident is unclear.


  5. If several students filed informal or formal reports, the administration should have informally mediated between those students and Adler. Why the Big Deal official actions? Why get the press involved? Sit down and talk it out like grown ups.

    I wonder if senior professors notice an up-tick in the publicity of academic scandals, as potentially a product of an uptick in publicity of academic research broadly. Either way, the mixture of administrator’s incentives to maintain PR for admissions, and their near complete lack of incentives to maintain academic freedom, is toxic.

    To me it looks like more and more administrations are taking it upon themselves to respond to anything that might hurt someone’s feelings with heavy-handed administrating, in order to protect the freedom and safety of the university.

    Such efforts will in the long run preserve neither. Who will watch the watchers?


  6. The Daily Camera has a new interview with Dr. Adler :

    “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.”

    The article goes on to provide some details about the skits.

    On the original topic, I imagine the Boulder PR person shouted out, “Hey, do we have anything that stops professors from doing crazy stuff?” Somebody might have responded, “IRB?” And he went from there.


    1. I wonder if this juxtaposition of sentences was on purpose in the Daily Camera story:

      “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.


  7. Why get the press involved?

    The link trail indicates that people who were upset about what the administration was understood to be doing got the student newspaper involved, and other sources have picked it up from there.

    Who will watch the watchers?

    The press?


    1. I told Dan and a few others on Facebook this afternoon that the Boulder spokesman’s statement about IRB seemed like a mistake. The biggest giveaway for me was that he e-mailed it Sunday night.

      It’s pretty common for a spokesman to have no clue what the policy is, so they need to check with their boss. This is difficult to do on the weekend, so the spokesman had to say something, ANYTHING, to avoid a no comment. Part of doing PR is taking one for the team if your bosses leave you twisting in the wind.

      As you might imagine, mistakes get made under these circumstances. I’ve been the reporter covering bigger mistakes. The story blows out of proportion before anyone on the other side realizes there is a mess to clean up. But once the bosses start talking themselves, they may completely ignore a staffer’s PR screwup (unless a reporter follows up).


    2. Good point – this one went my way. But most managers/administrators don’t min{injustice}, they min{problems}. So there is a larger problem in administrators bowing to media/public pressure instead of protecting faculty.

      Given the inevitable momentum of the now-more-open channel between the public and the university through the media, the solution here might be persuading media and the public of the sanctity of the liberal arts.


  8. So I looked at the story. It is bizarre. Admin gets a complaint early in the term from an undergrad TA that they are being asked to do something they don’t like and feel vulnerable about objecting to. What does admin do? Does admin call the prof and say “Are you sure this is a good idea? What protections are in place? Do you tell TAs they don’t have to do it?” Does admin try to get the event halted? No indeed. They let it go forward, observe it, and conclude after the fact that it is harassment. This sounds like a set-up to me.

    The story implies this has been going on for years. Is this the first time Adler tried the prostitute skit? It does not sound that way. Did admin complain about the skit before?

    The IRB stuff inflames us because they are nettles in our sides, but this story is not really about IRB.


    1. I read the story as implying that it was a graduate student TA who spoke to the Chair, but that it was undergraduate TAs who were involved in doing the actual skit.


  9. A couple of comments:

    1) Administrative procedures are arenas for settling scores, pursuing procedural justice, or engaging reorganization.

    It may be possible that some actors (admin) are pursuing a risk minimization strategy. It also may be that some of Adler’s colleagues have set her up. Finally, it may also be possible that some actors really believe they are protecting students. I’m going to guess that all three beliefs are in play here.

    2) The Chair who received the “report” from the TA is a mandatory reporter of sexual harassment. The problem is that no sexual harassment had taken place; it appears the report was made prior to the class. Why didn’t the chair discuss the issue directly with Adler as her supervisor and colleague? Also, this is very bad for CU-Boulder. If you think about it, it implies that admin stood by and let what they believed to be sexual harassment to happen.

    3) Whether this case meets the standard for sexual harassment is a major problem for CU-Boulder. There are too many witnesses who would suggest otherwise. As such, it will be very difficult for CU-Boulder to establish their case.

    4) Provosts (along with legal counsel) get involved for troubleshooting. This likely suggests administrative screwups.

    I’m going to predict that heads will roll, but it won’t be Adler’s.


  10. Today’s Chronicle story has more details, including a defense of the IRB mission creep angle:

    “[Spokesman Miller] clarified on Monday that Steven R. Leigh, dean of the university’s College of Arts and Sciences, had raised the question of whether it might be appropriate for a review board to pass judgment on such an activity, but the university recognizes that such boards are established to oversee human-subjects research, not teaching.”

    So, the Dean knew that IRB didn’t oversee research right now, but was suggesting that it might be nice if some similar board did!


    1. Yes, I saw that, too. This sounds like stupid stuff Deans say when trying to push blame around.

      I assumed he was a physicist or a botanist or from some other discipline that has no dealings with IRBs, so I looked him up. He’s an anthropologist. He should know better.


  11. Nothing about this has smelled right from the start. Whether or not there are vendettas, score-settling, or whatever, a Department chair is obligated to take all claims of sexual harassment (hostile workplace, etc) seriously. Standard Operating Procedure at my institution is to notify the Dean and the Department of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion whenever I become aware of a potential Title IX situation. They (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion… the office has other names at other schools) are obligated to investigate and respond – whether or not a formal complaint is lodged. Failure to do so constitutes failure to maintain institutional control. That’s what hammered Penn State. The references to Penn State in this story imply this is being treated as a Title IX matter.

    Not being privy to all the details (but reading between the lines). I suspect that the Chair (and possibly the Dean) did meet with Professor Adler, informed her that there was a complaint and that DEI (or its Colorado analog) was looking into the matter. I further suspect that the chair and/or dean suggested that professor Adler to drop or modify the skit to avoid further complaints. [That would be guidance, rather than a directive]. She opted to proceed as planned (as is her right, under academic freedom).

    It appears that the Chair responded by altering her teaching assignment (as is the chair’s prerogative). The language used in the various news accounts suggest that she has been “disciplined” or “removed from the classroom”. I don’t see anything in the official statements coming from the University to suggest that is true. Rather, it looks like they assigned this deviance class to someone else. [Or dropped it.] While we like to think that we own our classes, teaching assignments are an administrative matter. We don’t have a right to teach specific classes, no matter how long we’ve taught them.

    So I’m not saying that there isn’t something more sinister afoot; but I’ve been astonished how quickly the conspiratorial frame has spread across the internet as true. I sure am glad, I’m not chairing that Department right now.


  12. A noted professor with the bones for teaching puts a human face on prostitution as part of a 100 year tradition in sociology of bringing the ethnographic details of the lives of disenfranchised and disregarded groups to the foreground — and she gets put on time-out because a couple students started throwing administrative trigger words around like “sexual harassment.”

    The issue isn’t “IRB creep” — it’s “definition of sexual harassment” creep.


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