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UW-Platteville chancellor dismisses complaint against whistleblower professor

By   /   December 9, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

Part 9 of 16 in the series 'Troubled' Campus

MADISON, Wis. – The University of Wisconsin-Platteville has ended its four-month investigation into the professor who brought discrimination and retaliation charges against administrators.

Criminal justice professor Sabina Burton, who said she has been the target of ceaseless retaliation since bringing to light a sexual harassment complaint involving a student four years ago, asserts the investigation may be over but the abuse goes on.

UW-P Chancellor Dennis Shields has dismissed instructor Deb Rice’s Aug. 8 complaint alleging Burton created a “hostile work environment in the Criminal Justice Department.” He also dismissed Burton’s complaint against Rice.

The chancellor commissioned a private investigator to question Burton after Rice filed her complaint. The investigator, Dale Burke, of the Madison-based Riseling Group, showed up at Burton’s Platteville home and told her that she faced losing her job, if the allegations against her were true.

Photo by the UW-P

DISMISSED: UW-Platteville Chancellor Dennis Shields has ended a four-month investigation against a criminal justice professor who brought charges of misconduct and retaliation against the university. In doing so, Shields dismissed a complaint against Professor Sabina Burton.

Rice’s claims were found to be unsubstantiated.

“Having reviewed the report, I am dismissing your complaint against Dr. Burton,” Shields wrote to Rice. “I have concluded your complaints do not warrant disciplinary action or further investigation.”

The chancellor said he believes Rice’s complaint stems from “personal misunderstandings, miscommunication, and personal animosity.”

He said the same about Burton’s complaint against Rice in dismissing it.

There is plenty of personal animosity to go around in UW-Platteville’s troubled Criminal Justice Department.

As Wisconsin Watchdog first reported in October, Burton and others, including former students, have made allegations of harassment, intimidation, discrimination and retaliation against the university.

Burton’s claims go back more than four years, when a female student sought her help after a male professor passed the student a note in class. The note said, “Call me tonight!!!,” and included the professor’s private cellphone number.

Burton took the issue to Elizabeth Throop, who at the time was dean of liberal arts and education and has since been promoted to provost.

Throop at first voiced her concern about the serious nature and apparent inappropriateness of the note, according to emails obtained by Wisconsin Watchdog. She took issue with then-Criminal Justice Department Chairman Thomas Caywood’s claims that the note was all just part of a “secret experiment on social norms.”

Eventually, according to court documents, Throop backed up the male professor and Caywood. Burton said Caywood, who has since resigned, Throop and other administrators – all the way up to Shields – have made her professional life a living hell.

Burton claims she has been unfairly disciplined, her career has been waylaid, and her job threatened over the past four years. Others, including a former graduate student who worked in the Criminal Justice Department, say they have been punished for defending Burton.

The professor filed a federal lawsuit against the university in 2014. A district court judge dismissed the lawsuit and granted the defendants summary judgment. Burton has appealed the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit.

Documents, including court depositions, show Rice falsely reported to administrators that Burton canceled class in December 2014. She also, according to multiple witnesses, told faculty and staff at a university event that she believed Burton to be suffering from some kind of mental illness. Burton later filed a criminal complaint against Rice with the Platteville Police Department, but law enforcement said the issue was a civil matter.

Documents note Rice made other misleading allegations about Burton’s use of social networks. Rice claimed Burton posted YouTube videos and tweets that negatively mention her. Burton did not post the content.

Photo by Watchdog.org

SPEAKING UP: Professor Sabina Burton speaks in October on her many allegations against administrators. The university canceled a forum on the troubled Criminal Justice Department moments before it was to begin.

“When will this stop? When will the University listen to us that Dr. Burton is smearing our reputation and is creating a hostile work environment?” Rice wrote in her original complaint. “I do not feel safe when Dr. Burton is present.”

Rice said that in November 2015 she was served with a subpoena deposing her in the federal case. Some of her emails were included in the subpoena.

“Nothing was found in those emails that was considered inflammatory and the federal case was dismissed because the allegations were unfounded,” the instructor wrote.

That’s not quite correct.

The lawsuit was tossed because the incidents Burton noted in her complaint did not rise to a colorable violation – in essence, retaliation and discrimination – under the law. The dismissal doesn’t offer judgment on the allegations.

Burton can be terse and confrontational in her interactions with the administration, but she says that is simply because for the past four years she has been punished for reporting misconduct while violators go undisciplined or are rewarded.

She reported bullying behavior. A former chairman of the department had threatened her on multiple occasions, according to court depositions. The university’s human resources director said she would investigate but apparently did not. Instead, she reported Burton to the chancellor.

In June, Shields issued a Letter of Direction against Burton threatening discipline if she continued to make “false allegations, intimidate, and harass my colleagues and chair.” There is no direct evidence that Burton did any of those things, according to email communications and court documents.

In the most recent investigation involving Rice, Shields hired a private detective at university expense to investigate allegations against Burton.

There is no doubt the professor is a pain in administration’s side. She has filed numerous complaints, including a filing with the Office of Civil Rights. But the professor said she has done so because administrators have refused to follow university policy and the law.  And, as Burton says, there is nothing illegal about or wrong with filing grievances when a member of the campus community believes misconduct or abuse has occurred.

Rose Smyrski, vice chancellor of university relations, in an email said she is “sorry that Dr. Burton is continuing to feel this way” about what the professor alleges to be continued disparate treatment and retaliation.

“(W)e strive to ensure the university creates an environment where individuals are comfortable and free in expressing themselves,” Smyrski said.

What the university has striven to do, Burton said, is exacerbate her ulcers from the professional stress that she has been forced to endure.

In September, her doctor advised the university to delay its investigation into Burton one month to give a new medicine a chance to take effect and to take Burton out of a stressful situation.

Administrators originally declined on the advice of University of Wisconsin System Administration Deputy General Counsel Jennifer Sloan Lattis.

“I don’t think we can delay the investigation,” Lattis wrote Janelle Crowley, chief human resources officer, in a Sept. 12 email, seemingly mocking Burton’s health issues. “Apparently the condition is not such that she cannot continue to perform her other duties and this is one of her duties. I think you should write to Sabina and tell her that. “

Crowley responded to Burton.

“You have been directed to participate in the investigation as part of your duties. Therefore, with or without your participation, the investigation will continue,” Crowley wrote Burton on Sept. 16.

The university eventually relented.

Part of 16 in the series 'Troubled' Campus


M.D. Kittle is bureau chief of Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment Reporter for Watchdog.org. Kittle is a 25-year veteran of print, broadcast and online media. He is the recipient of several awards for journalism excellence from The Associated Press, Inland Press, the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, and others. He is also a member of Investigative Reporters & Editors. Kittle's extensive series on Wisconsin's unconstitutional John Doe investigations was the basis of a 2014 documentary on Glenn Beck's TheBlaze. His work has been featured in Town Hall, Fox News, NewsMax, and other national publications, and his reporting has been cited by news outlets nationwide. Kittle is a fill-in talk show host on the Jay Weber Show and the Vicki McKenna Show in Milwaukee and Madison.