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Embattled UW-P criminal justice professor: ‘I have been treated like a criminal’

By   /   March 14, 2017  /   News  /   No Comments

Part 14 of 15 in the series 'Troubled' Campus

MADISON, Wis. – A whistleblower professor facing termination has filed a federal complaint alleging discrimination and retaliation against her by University of Wisconsin-Platteville administrators.

Photo by UW-P

DISCRIMINATION CLAIMS: UW-Platteville Professor Sabina Burton claims a colleague falsely told fellow professors she had a mental illness and described her father, a German national, as a Nazi or Nazi sympathizer.

Associate criminal justice professor Sabina Burton in the complaint filed with the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission claims she has been the “target of vicious retaliation by both her fellow professors and the administration of the school.”

“She has suffered numerous adverse actions ranging from intimidation to attempts to block her career aspirations to threatened termination,” states the complaint. “These actions constitute retaliation against an individual who participated in protected activity, and stand as clear violations against EEOC guidelines.”

Meanwhile, a University of Wisconsin System investigation into allegations of misconduct brought by administrators against Burton appears to have concluded with a favorable finding for the administration.

Burton’s complaint, as her federal civil rights lawsuit pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, alleges the professor has paid a substantial price for intervening on behalf of a female student who, in the fall of 2012, confided that she felt sexually harassed by a male professor.

The male professor, Lorne Gibson, handed student Alexandra Zupec a note in his 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 part of a “secret experiment on social norms.”

Eventually, according to court documents, Throop backed up the male professor and Caywood. A faculty grievance committee ruled that Burton and the student were right. The committee didn’t buy the “experiment” explanation. It found that Gibson used “extremely poor judgment” in offering the note, and expressed doubt that Gibson was acting in an academic capacity.

“While the grievance committee was not paneled to determine a course of action related to this third party, his actions were so egregious that the committee felt compelled to provide this letter to your [sic] for review,” the committee wrote in an April 2013 letter to Chancellor Dennis Shields.

The committee accused Gibson of “slut-shaming” Zupec and that the professor “has serious liabilities and lacks even a fundamental understanding of structural sexism.”

University officials contend the original subjects of the harassment allegations are no longer with the university, so, problem solved.

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.

RELATED: UW-Platteville whistleblower professor ordered to clean out office

In Wisconsin Watchdog’s investigative series, “Troubled Campus,” Burton claims administrators took away a grant, committee seats, and effectively stalled her professional career after she spoke out about the handling of the sexual harassment complaint. She claims she was physically threatened by then-Acting Criminal Justice Department Chairman Michael Dalecki, that she was defamed by an instructor, and saw her health rapidly deteriorate in a four-year campaign of harassment and retaliation.

Burton, who has filed previous EEOC complaints, says she is viewed as a “troublemaker” by administration and staff.

In July 2015, the EEOC issued Burton a right-to-sue letter related to her second EEOC complaint on retaliation and discrimination. The agency determined that grounds exist for a discrimination claim.

The latest EEOC complaint alleges that “Dalecki immediately began to retaliate against Dr. Burton.”

“On more than one occasion, Dr. Dalecki asked Dr. Burton to dismiss her EEOC complaint. When Dr. Burton made it clear that she was going to file a lawsuit, Dr. Dalecki asked Dr. Burton not to do so.” When Burton persisted, Dalecki told her to “get over it,” and said, “You can’t expect to file a lawsuit without consequences,” the complaint alleges.

Eight days after Burton filed another complaint, Throop sent Burton a “Letter of Direction,” claiming Burton had harassed and bullied other staff. The latest EEOC complaint asserts the administration’s charges are “either factually inaccurate” or involved incidents “based on protected activity on the part of Dr. Burton.”

The complaint also alleges Burton’s co-worker, Deb Rice, created a “hostile work environment” for Burton. Rice, according to the complaint, falsely told members of the Criminal Justice Department and at least one student that Burton suffers from a mental illness and is “prejudiced against East Germans.” Rice admitted to UW-P administration that she made the statements, “but no discipline … was ever undertaken,” according to the complaint.

During a 2013 school trip to Germany, Rice claimed that Burton seemed “detached” during a tour of a Nazi concentration camp, according to the complaint. “Deb Rice then made false allegations that Dr. Burton’s father (a German national) was a Nazi/Nazi sympathizer somehow/connected to Nazis.”

“These statements are outlandishly discriminatory,” making Burton feel marginalized in the workplace, the complaint states.

Photo by UW-Platteville

INITIATING DISMISSAL: UW-Platteville Chancellor Dennis Shields in January advised Burton that he was “initiating the dismissal process’ and opening an investigation into the criminal justice professor.

In January, Shields ordered Burton to clean out her office and prohibited her from being on campus while the investigation into complaints against the professor continued.

The investigation was announced a little over a month after Shields dismissed another complaint against Burton and a counter complaint by Rice, noting the “complaints do not warrant disciplinary action or further investigation.”

In that probe last fall, Shields hired a private investigator to question Burton at her home. Burton provided evidence showing the allegations made against her were false and told Wisconsin Watchdog the probe was a means to push out a vocal critic of Shields’ administration.

Shields, who has been criticized by faculty and students for his handling of other misconduct allegations, advised Burton in January that he was “initiating the dismissal process” based on a complaint filed by Throop and Melissa Gormley, interim dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Education. Shields informed Burton that if the allegations are true, they would warrant “Burton’s dismissal.”

Among other offenses, the administrators’ complaint alleges Burton behaved “unprofessionally,” including “involving students into your personal concerns.”

Burton denies the allegations, providing evidence refuting accusations regarding internal email communications, for instance.

UW-Platteville officials and representatives from the UW System have declined to comment on the personnel matters.

Petra Roter, senior special assistant to the vice president for Academic and Student Affairs for the University of Wisconsin System Administration, led the latest investigation into Burton.

Roter recently completed a report on her findings. The investigation included interviews with Burton and her accusers, who claim it was Burton who has caused a hostile environment in the department.

“Colleagues describe the threats and harassment as an attempt to undermine them professionally and to do damage to their reputation and careers, including calling some unethical and imply(ing) that (Burton) could adversely impact tenure and promotion processes and decisions,” Roter wrote.

Burton disputes many of the reports findings on the webpage she has used to document her allegations, the webpage that has landed her in hot water with administration.

Overall, Roter’s report suggests a Criminal Justice Department that has been in disarray for some time.

“All those interviewed in the Criminal Justice program noted the department environment was ‘chilling’ and ‘dysfunctional’ and interviews of all parties, including Dr. Burton, report that they felt threatened directly and indirectly,” the report states.  “Dr. Burton reports being cursed at, belittled, misrepresented and felt she was being retaliated by her colleagues.  All those interviewed described threatening and harassing emails and interactions.”

While her accusers complained about their interactions with Burton, “everyone interviewed agreed that Dr. Burton is an excellent teacher.” The professor has personnel records indicating her exemplary performance – even through the legal battles with the university.

Burton says she will not simply “get over it,” as the former acting department head suggested she do.

“I have been suspended. Had to clear my office under police presence. Been treated like a criminal, like a threat.” Burton wrote. “This is very destructive and demoralizing to me, especially considering my professional past and the field I am teaching in.”

M.D. Kittle is bureau chief for Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment reporter for Watchdog.org. Contact him at [email protected]

Part of 15 in the series 'Troubled' Campus

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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.