In the weekly's June 22 edition, columnist Wayne Laugesen told how criminologist Dr. Ed Sbarbaro was fired from his teaching position as assistant professor of criminology at UCCS's School of Public Affairs.
Sbarbaro was let go, Laugesen writes, largely because he raised questions in class that didn't quite toe the pro-cops party line of the school's administration.
"Don't criticize the criminal justice system, or call into question its practices, while teaching at CU," he wrote. "We market this program to cops, and our faculty will celebrate the police, prosecutors and prisons."
Well-known among prison critics and prisoner support groups, Sbarbaro has also taught criminology at Colorado College, where he specialized in giving students face-to-face experiences with prisons, courts, jails, homeless shelters and substance abuse programs.
It was that innovative teaching style, which focuses on vigorous student debate and rigorous critique of the criminal justice system, that Sbarbaro believes got him fired. Three students gave Sbarbaro teacher evaluation ratings of "F," Sbarbaro conceded, but the main complaint from two of those students was that the teacher talked too much about race in class.
"I continued to feel bothered by the fact that Prof. Sbarbaro always wants to discuss the probability of situations revolving around 'big brother' being corrupt, full of wrongdoing, actively prejudiced against minorities with the victim always being a minority (usually black) and always mistreated in some significant unconstitutional way," one student wrote.
Though UCCS's faculty handbook says teachers are entitled to see student evaluations after graduation, administrators initially refused to show Sbarbaro the reviews, which were finally handed over by deans at UC headquarters in Boulder weeks later.
"The comments were that I talked too much about race," Sbarbaro said. "Well, you know, this is a class on criminal justice. The statistics show that the burden of incarceration falls on the poor and minorities, and in class I try to untangle the reasons for that."
When students found out Sbarbaro was being let go, the Ph.D got several unsolicited letters of support. "Dr. Sbarbaro is one of the finest teachers that I have had the pleasure of attending class with," one student wrote. "I sincerely wish that more professors were of such high caliber as Dr. Sbarbaro."
Because school administrators never told him he was in trouble, Sbarbaro said the whole thing came as a shock. "The reason they gave me was poor teaching, but that doesn't make sense," he said. "I taught for four years at Colorado College and got very positive feedback."
Sbarbaro thinks that some students also didn't like his bent toward community-based learning, in which he sent students down to El Paso County Criminal Justice Center and to work with a committee of law enforcement agencies studying the jail overcrowding issue.
Such class projects often don't go smoothly because they are dependent on cooperation from a variety of agencies. "Like anything new, I'm sure there were some kinks, but that's what happens when you try to be innovative. This kind of experiential, community-based learning can be extremely powerful, but I have a feeling that [the administration] just wants to make students happy."
A Catholic who espouses "liberation theology," Sbarbaro is not shy about his passion for social justice. After moving to Colorado, he helped found Posada, a homeless shelter in his hometown Pueblo and he taught in prisons for five years before Congress killed the program in the mid '90s.
Born in the Bronx and raised in New Jersey, Sbarbaro got his doctorate in sociology from the University of Delaware, where he teamed up with famed criminologist William Chambliss on a book about crime and punishment.
But those credentials apparently don't impress UCCS, which fired Sbarbaro with no warning in late May even though the school's faculty handbook requires administrators to inform professors about change in their status by March, so they can find another job.
Neither the school's dean Kathleen Beatty, nor its associate dean, retired Fort Collins police chief Fred Rainquet, could be reached at press time for comment.
Sbarbaro and his lawyer are appealing the firing, but it's not the alleged lack of due process that really bothers Sbarbaro. "There are major problems with criminal justice in this country and if universities don't challenge students to think about what's really going on then they're being complicit in those problems."
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