What’s the IRB Got to Do With Teaching?

Inside Higher Ed has a new story with a few more details about the tenured Colorado University sociology professor who was forced to resign over concerns about a lecture/skit on prostitution in her sociology of deviance course. Some things are clarified, many things remain confusing. For example, CU does not appear to have denied the “post-Penn State” comment:

[Dean] Leigh told [Professor Adler] that there was “too much risk” in having such a lecture in the “post-Penn State environment,” alluding to the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

Asked about the “post-Penn State” comment that Adler reported being told, [CU spokesman] Miller said that “all education institutions, including CU-Boulder, have to ensure that no student or employee feels subject to discrimination or harassment.”

Again, I’m really not sure what connection there is between the Penn State scandal and TAs feeling uncomfortable participating in a skit for a lecture on deviance, except perhaps that the former is now the newest excuse for heightened centralized bureaucratic authority over academic affairs. To be a bit kinder to the university, and in admission of a lack of full information, it’s always possible that there is more to the story, and that one of the undergraduate teaching assistants made a serious complaint that went unheard or something of the sort. Right now though, the rhetoric seems over the top.

But perhaps the most perplexing new detail is the administration’s invocation of the IRB as a relevant entity:

Mark J. Miller, a spokesman for the university, said via email Sunday night that the university was limited in what it could say because a personnel matter is involved. But asked whether there were concerns about the prostitution lecture and whether they were expressed to Adler, 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.”

For those keeping score at home, IRBs generally have nothing to do with teaching. Their mission is to handle regulatory compliance for research involving human subjects. That is, they make sure people give informed consent to participate, that protocols are in place to deal with problems, etc. To my knowledge, IRBs are only involved in teaching when the students in the course are to conduct their own research.* But what does the IRB possibly have to do with a professor giving a lecture?

Academic readers – have you ever heard of a faculty member getting IRB approval for something done in the classroom (that was not also part of a research project)?

EDIT: Two updates. First, the CU provost has issued a statement clarifying their side of the story. The provost argues that Adler was not forced to resign, but rather only forced to not teach deviance next term and warned that further issues could bring about a dismissal. The provost also points to complaints by anonymous TAs who felt uncomfortable refusing to participate and thus felt coerced as the source of the investigation / issue: “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.” The full statement is up at HuffPo.

Second, Andy Perrin contacted Colorado to follow up on the “IRB, wtf?” part of this story. In a comment on a ScatterPlot post, he reproduces Colorado’s response: “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.” The Provost’s note (again available at HuffPo) does not mention the IRB.

EDIT 2: Today’s Chronicle story (gated) about the incident includes some follow-up from Colorado on the IRB question. The answer seems to be that Colorado acknowledges that the IRB has nothing to do with teaching… yet:

Mark K. Miller, a university spokesman, initially responded to questions raised by Ms. Adler’s treatment by suggesting that it might have been best for her to run her skit plans by an institutional review board.

He 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 knows IRBs don’t handle teaching, but thinks it would be appropriate for them to do so in the future. Lovely.

* For example, the research methods course at Michigan has some kind of blanket approval from the IRB, allowing the professor and graduate students to approve undergraduate research projects. If students want to continue those projects after the course (e.g. for an honors thesis) they are allowed to do so if they then get further IRB approval.

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