The comment concerns sociology professor Patti Adler's announcement that she plans to retire early rather than risk being fired for classroom teaching that might make students uncomfortable.
[Scott Jaschik, “Tenured Professor at Boulder Says She Is Being Forced out over Lecture on Prostitution," Inside Higher Ed, December 16, 2013. http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/12/16/tenured-professor-boulder-says-she-being-forced-out-over-lecture-prostitution.]
In an e-mail interview with Inside Higher Ed, university spokesman Mark J. Miller wrote,
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.
Since the teaching in question did not involve human subjects research, I suppose faculty are left to guess when they should consult the IRB.
This is not Boulder's first clash between sociologists and the IRB. In the 1970s, university sociologists Edward Rose and Howard Higman accused the IRB of censorship. (Ethical Imperialism, 48-50). And in the 1990s, an IRB administrator told Adler's students that they could not use information gathered through informal conversations. [Patricia A. Adler and Peter Adler , "Do University Lawyers and the Police Define Research Values?," in Walking the Tightrope: Ethical Issues for Qualitative Researchers, ed. Will C. van den Hoonaard (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002)]
It is not clear whether the IRB is involved in the current controversy, or whether Miller's statement merely reflects his own misunderstanding of human subjects regulations.
And to their credit, IRB members (though not necessarily from CU-Boulder) have distanced themselves from Miller's position. In the lead comment on the Inside Higher Ed piece, one writes, "As having served as a long-time IRB member, I resent having an IRB used as a 'fall-guy' to harass or threaten a faculty member."