PLATTEVILLE, Wis. — What began with a creepy note a criminal justice teacher passed to a student has grown into a federal lawsuit alleging discrimination, intimidation and retaliation at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.
Sabina Burton, associate professor of criminal justice, claims administration ostracized, punished and ultimately robbed her of due process rights after she assisted a student who felt sexually harassed by another professor.
Now, four years after Burton says her professional nightmare began, she faces the real threat that she will lose her teaching position after a distinguished career in higher education.
“I hope my story with you will reach people who are willing and able to help me,” Burton told Wisconsin Watchdog. “I want to do the right thing, but it is hard to know that I probably will lose my job over this. I hope I can get support so I can fight termination. What I am doing is protected activity and I shouldn’t have to fear termination.”
While the university’s faculty grievance committee has found Burton’s actions appropriate and the conduct of a peer “egregious,” she has documented the many instances of intimidation and retaliation she says she encountered during her painful odyssey.
She has been called crazy, told she was “all alone on a sinking ship.” And when Burton complained to the chairman of the criminal justice department and the dean of the school’s College of Liberal Arts and Education, she was told she wasn’t acting like a “team player.” She was told that “women do not belong in the criminal justice field.”
University of Wisconsin-Platteville administrators did not return multiple requests for comment.
Burton lost her original civil lawsuit in March, when U.S. District Court Judge James Peterson issued an order granting the university summary judgment. The judge, who has been in the spotlight of late for the restrictions he has placed on Wisconsin’s voter ID law, concluded Burton’s Title IX claim failed because Burton “failed to adduce evidence of a materially adverse action.”
Burton appealed to the Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, arguing that Peterson “failed to consider the entirety of the evidence in support of Burton’s claim,” instead focusing on a few, select events. The case is pending.
Indeed, Burton’s allegations are much broader than the district court considered, beginning with the Criminal Justice Department and rising all the way to the top — to UW-P’s chancellor. Multiple sources allege that Burton’s case speaks to an overall problem of misconduct, cover-up and retaliation at the small state university tucked away in the bucolic setting of southwest Wisconsin’s rolling river hills.
This is Sabina Burton’s story.
On Oct. 10, 2012, Alexandra Zupec was handed a note from her criminal justice professor, Lorne Gibson.
“We were working in groups this particular day. He was just walking around the classroom when suddenly he comes up to me and slides this little ripped piece of paper under my book,” Zupec, 25, recalled. “I looked at the piece of paper and it said, ‘Call me tonight!!!’ It had his (private cellphone) number on it.”
Zupec said she immediately “started freaking out” in her group. She said the note, the entire act, caught her off guard. She was stunned, but remained in the class and Gibson went about his business. He did not approach her again during the class.
The rattled student contemplated what to do. She decided to take her concerns to Burton, a professor she said she could trust.
She said Burton was surprised, and apologized on behalf of the department that the incident had occurred. Burton promised to help.
The professor said she attempted to take her concerns to the Criminal Justice Department chairman at the time, Thomas Caywood. He was out of the office that day.
So Burton emailed then-Dean of Liberal Arts and Education, Elizabeth Throop, and, without going into details, asked whether she should report inappropriate faculty conduct toward a student to Caywood or to Student Affairs, according to communications obtained by Wisconsin Watchdog.
Throop advised Burton to report the incident to the dean of students. Burton did.
Asked by administration about his solicitous note, Caywood claimed it was all just a “secret experiment on social norms. Throop asked whether the experiment had been approved in advance by the Institutional Review Board, a standard requirement.
Gibson had not sought or had approval been granted for the “experiment,” so Caywood told administration he had approved it. Caywood defended Gibson.
“This was example of a specific type of breach experiment. Its not an IRB issue,” the department chair incorrectly claimed in an email to Throop. “I spoke to him (Gibson) and directed him to send a(n) email to both sections of his research class to explaining [sic] what he did and why he did if [sic].”
Throop emailed back, saying she had plenty of experiences with “breach” experiments. Something did not seem right. Such experiments are not used in the Criminal Justice Department.
“If he passed a note with that message and a phone number without explaining, ahead of time, what he was doing, and he did it, in addition, in such a way as to create an atmosphere of potential sexual harassment, this is a profoundly serious issue,” the administrator wrote.
Zupec said she definitely felt harassed.
“I thought he was being a complete creep,” she told Wisconsin Watchdog. “That was his first semester there. He was completely new. I didn’t know this man from anywhere. I was not a heavy participant in class. I kept to myself. When I got this I thought, ‘This is the stuff you see in TV shows.’ The rest of the class saw that I was shaking and really nervous.”
The lawsuit states that Gibson had passed a similar note to another female student. The student was not identified.
A faculty grievance committee wasn’t buying 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.
In the document, the committee takes issue with Gibson’s email to his students, in which he apologizes to “any students who weren’t aware of the experimental nature of the note.” The professor said he made a mistake in “assuming it was easily apparent given the context of the lesson topic and how often I make fun of myself.” And he apologized to “anyone who wasted time outside of class in reacting to my example, or for any anxiety it may have caused.” And he closed with this: “Please do not feel compelled to identify yourself as one of the example subjects or groups.”
The committee sounded astounded that Gibson had failed to debrief his class about the nature of the experiment, asserting that such a failure “undermines Dr. Gibson’s competence to teach research methods ethically and effectively.”
“Dr. Gibson’s email is beyond reprehensible. Given the likelihood his note passing was witnessed by at least one other student, his ‘please do not feel compelled to identify yourself comment rings hollow,” the committee wrote. “He effectively ‘outted’ the young women by his email, which he then compounds by suggesting they were too stupid (‘I made the mistake of assuming it was easily apparent’) and over-reactive (‘anyone who wasted time outside of class’).”
And then the committee delivered perhaps its harshest criticism.
“This version of ‘slut-shaming’ suggests Dr. Gibson has serious liabilities and lacks even a fundamental understanding of structural sexism,” the committee wrote.
But it wasn’t Gibson that university focused its discipline on. It was the professor who came to the student’s defense, Sabina Burton, and anyone who made the critical mistake of standing by her.
‘Women don’t belong…’
Despite the grievance committee’s findings, it appears Gibson was never even reprimanded for his conduct.
In a deposition last year, Throop indicated that Burton’s grievances resulted in “no consequences.” The dean along the way changed her tune about the “serious” nature of Gibson’s “experiment,” insisting that the student overreacted.
Throop, who was named provost and vice chancellor in May, did not return calls seeking comment.
Soon after his scuffle with administration, Caywood, the Criminal Justice Department chairman, took aim at Burton. He criticized her openly for the way she reported the incident and unilaterally issued a new policy on how to handle such complaints.
“If a student has a complaint about what a faculty/staff member said or did in class direct the student to come to me immediately. I will try to ascertain what exactly happened and if necessary forward the complaint to the appropriate persons on campus,” Caywood wrote in an Oct. 16, 2012, letter to the department.
The next day, UW-P Human Resources director Jeanne Durr wrote to Caywood that, “under the circumstances, (Burton) acted quite properly.”
Burton claims that for the rest of the semester, Caywood “took out his frustrations” over the incident on Burton.
She reported to Throop several acts of reprisal. Throop told Burton she appreciated her concerns, but the matter was an “internal department issue” and, as the dean, she did not want to interfere in faculty governance matters.
In January 2013, after signaling support for a department cyber security program Burton had proposed and for which she netted a corporate grant, Caywood and Throop changed course and moved to shut down the professor’s efforts.
At the same time, Burton applied for tenure. Caywood did not support her bid, stating, “women do not belong in the criminal justice field,” according to discovery. Despite Caywood’s resistance, Burton received tenure in August 2013.
Things got worse for Burton, she alleges, after the grievance committee found Caywood had “seriously mishandled” the student complaint and punished Burton for reporting it. The committee said Caywood showed an “appearance of favoritism toward one of Burton’s male colleagues …” and a “lack of support” for Burton.
The committee found the Criminal Justice Department to be in a state of dysfunction, and recommended several points of action taken. University administration did nothing with the findings and recommendations, according to Burton’s lawsuit.
Burton, who had successfully served on several department committees, including faculty recruitment teams, was either removed from the committees or no longer invited to join them.
Caywood was removed from his position as Criminal Justice Department chairman in July 2013. But things did not improve.
He was replaced by Mike Dalecki, a long-time sociology professor and program coordinator. There were concerns from faculty early on that Dalecki was not qualified for the position and that Throop kept him on as interim chairman because he answered directly to the dean — unlike previous chairpersons.
Dalecki, upon arrival, acknowledged that “Caywood’s removal and my replacing him was a tacit if not overt admission that at least some of (Burton’s) complaints were likely valid,” according to court documents. And Throop, in her internal notes, wrote that Caywood had “exacerbated the problem by publicly chastising Burton for going around him” in the solicitous note incident.
But Dalecki and administrators looked at Burton as a faculty member who was not to be trusted, wasn’t a “team player,” according to multiple sources and internal documents.
And so, according to Burton, they made her professional life hell.
On Aug. 13, 2013, Burton filed a discrimination charge against Throop and Caywood, claiming they had retaliated against her and the university had failed to address her grievances.
In a meeting two months later, Dalecki indicated the dean “may not have confidence in Burton’s ability to serve as chair in the future based on her complaints…,” according to documents in the federal lawsuit.
Ron Jacobus, UW-P graduate and former graduate school student assistant in the Criminal Justice Department, said he paid the price for standing up for Burton.
Jacobus, 25, and now residing in Texas, said he had no idea about the back story with Burton at the time he served his assistantship. He just knew she was a good professor and he respected her.
Jacobus recalled that criminal justice instructor Deborah Rice made disparaging comments to several colleagues about Burton at a department event at which Burton was not present. She described Burton as “crazy.”
“I took particular issue with the statement that was made,” Jacobus said. “I said, ‘I don’t believe that to be true.’ The topic just died.”
He told Burton about the conversation. Rice suspected Jacobus had done so and took her outrage to Dalecki.
The interim — and unhappy — chairman called Jacobus in for a meeting. Jacobus recorded the conversation.
Dalecki advised Jacobus that “silence is golden” and there’s a price to pay for serving as a “conduit” of information “for anybody or anything.”
“Because in the long run that stuff, it will come back and ultimately haunt you, either in terms of people will no longer include you or, uh, who knows what.. I think that from what I’ve heard from people you are astute enough to know that you want to stay away from the politics of the department. … And politics are primarily a consequence of people who place themselves ahead of the mission of the group,” Dalecki warned.
The interim chairman cautioned Jacobus to “think twice and maybe thrice” before he passed along information to “anyone that frankly they don’t necessarily need to know.”
“There’s nothing you are going to do that’s going to make a difference except that if something explodes in the face you’ll get hit with shrapnel and the best thing for you to do is to stay away from where that happens,” Dalecki said. “None of them know what the chair knows. And if they knew what the chair knew then they would, in some cases, shut the hell up and in other cases they’d cut the chair a break because they know the chair is taking a hit for everybody.”
Jacobus said as the fall 2014 semester progressed he had a “feeling of outsidership” and the department felt cold. It became a “door-shut environment,” people were “self-segregating.”
At the end of the spring 2015 semester, Jacobus would learn he would not be retained as a department assistant. He said he was told two different reasons — the department didn’t have the money, and there was no longer a need for a grad student assistant. Documents show the department did have the money in the budget and that Jacobus was the only applicant for the position.
Jacobus knew the real reason. He was being punished for not being a “team player,” for standing up for Burton, who had been excommunicated in the department and at the university.
Time running out
In an attempt to correct the dysfunction in the department, the university’s grievance committee had recommended communications training. The Human Resources Department advised diversity and harassment training. Upper administration “encouraged hiring outside consultants to assist with conflict resolution,” according to documents.
“The mandatory communication training was never conducted, nor was diversity and harassment training, and outside consultants were never retained,” according to a deposition.
Despite all that had gone on, Burton still received excellent professional evaluations, according to internal documents. Burton said administrators continued to retaliate against her.
In October 2014, two years after she took up the criminal justice student’s cause, Burton filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint alleging ongoing discrimination and retaliation.
Two weeks later, Throop countered with a “Letter of Direction” with the chancellor in which she complained about Burton’s “activities.” The dean alleged Burton had unjustly complained about Dalecki, and Burton had sent a “threatening” departmental email. Burton dismissed the allegation. A review of the emails in question shows nothing that could be construed as “threatening.”
Throop later made false complaints that Burton had canceled a class, according to court documents. Students and others would testify that was not the case.
While she waited nearly a year for the grievance committee to hear her case, Burton said criminal justice staff told students “Burton would not be at UW-Platteville much longer.” Administration removed her mentee without stating a reason, and her restorative justice assignment, a program she brought to campus, was taken away from her and given to a new hire.
As she awaits resolution on her appeal, Burton has already spent nearly $200,000 in legal fees.
She has been informed that Chancellor Dennis Shields has issued a complaint against her, threatening to terminate the professor’s position. That complaint, Burton said, is based on allegations without any documentation or other proof.
Burton accused Shields of running a “sham investigation” against her.
“I believe the administration is hoping to have me terminated by spring 2017,” she predicted.
According to her spring schedule, Burton was assigned low-level courses usually taught by adjuncts.
“Since they already adjusted my schedule accordingly, I see this as an attempt to fire me,” Burton said.
Shields did not return multiple requests for comment.
Dalecki is no longer chairman of the department. Caywood is long gone. Gibson, the professor who handed Zupec the strange note, too, is gone; not because of his conduct related to his so-called “experiment,” but apparently because he butted heads with Dalecki.
Zupec graduated from UW-P, and said she is proud that she did.
“I met a lot of good people there. I had a lot of good professors,” she said. “I just wish things were handled better, not so poorly. I do think more poorly of the administration.”
Jacobus left the university after he lost his assistant position. He said he’s proud to have stood up for Burton, even if it did cost him. He said he gives Burton a lot of credit for staying at the university, despite all she has been through, and positively affecting students’ lives.
“I know her. She doesn’t walk away from corruption. That’s her personality,” Jacobus said. “They’ve finally found someone who is not going to just roll over and leave. That’s a problem for them, someone pressing for a higher level of integrity and morality; but that’s something we should expect from our universities.”