UW-Platteville Criminal Justice chairwoman resigning amid campus controversy

M.D. Kittle
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Nov 03, 2016 9:19 PM
UW-Platteville Criminal Justice chairwoman resigning amid campus controversy

MADISON, Wis. – Frustrated with administration, the chairwoman of the University of Wisconsin-Platteville‘s embattled Criminal Justice Department is stepping down, Wisconsin Watchdog has learned.

Staci Strobl, who was named chair in July 2015, announced in an email Thursday to administrators and Criminal Justice faculty that she is officially resigning her post.

“Unfortunately, recent events have made clear that there is no institutional support for me to take the necessary step to help this department move on from a past that is both troubled and troubling,” Strobl wrote in the email to Melissa Gormley, interim Dean of UW-P’s College of Liberal Arts and Education. “Under those circumstances, I feel unable to do my job and would better serve the institution and my colleagues as a tenured member of the department.”

On Wednesday – one day after administrators canceled a student forum Strobl had scheduled to address Wisconsin Watchdog’s investigative report on myriad allegations of misconduct and retaliation at UW-P – the chair called an “emergency meeting” for Friday morning, according to another email. Full-time instructional members were expected to attend.

Much has occurred since Wisconsin Watchdog’s investigation broke on Oct. 26. The story details the many allegations of harassment, intimidation, discrimination and retaliation against the university by associate criminal justice professor Sabina Burton.

RELATED: UW-Platteville professor pays the price for standing up for student, taking on administration

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.

Photo by UW-Platteville

STEPPING DOWN: Wisconsin Watchdog has learned University of Wisconsin-Platteville Criminal Justice Department Chairwoman Staci Strobl is stepping down following widespread controversy on campus.

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 UW-P Chancellor Dennis 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.

University officials have refused to return Wisconsin Watchdog’s multiple requests for comment, but they did issue a statement to the press 15 minutes before Tuesday’s forum was supposed to have begun.

“The University of Wisconsin-Platteville strives to ensure all students, faculty and staff operate in the best possible environment,” the statement read. “The university invites all people to express their concerns, takes all comments seriously, and follows due diligence in the review process.”

Burton has taken the university to court. She lost her lawsuit at the federal district court level, a point University of Wisconsin System officials say should not be overlooked. Burton has appealed her case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit.

Some 70 students gathered for Tuesday’s event. They were livid after receiving an administrative email 20 minutes before the session saying the “Forum on the Wisconsin Watchdog article” had been postponed.

Still, the students and Burton aired their many grievances about what they see as a lack of transparency at the university and a culture of cover-up at the top levels of administration.

Strobl’s husband, Matt Michaels, who has taught criminal justice courses at the university, called the administration “feckless” and urged students to “do something public if you are interested in transparency.” Michaels earlier in the evening questioned Wisconsin Watchdog’s investigative report and said university administrators may be instructed by attorneys not to comment because Burton’s lawsuit is pending.

Criminal justice professor emeritus Joe Lomax, nationally recognized and respected as a trailblazer in police science, encouraged the students to take positive action and confront the administration with their concerns.

“You feel hopeless and helpless now, well you wait until you get out there and you have people you find who are many levels above and you are going to have to deal with and pick up and ask them to go along with the law,” he told the aspiring law enforcers.

Lomax, who led the Criminal Justice Department into national prominence, has seen his leadership role diminished in recent years.

Seven departmental faculty members have been fired or have resigned over the past 13 months, Burton said, a point confirmed by others. And the fault, she said, lies with UW-P administrators.

“I see an exodus of quality people,” the professor said Tuesday. “The administration that came over, I’m sorry but they are bullies.”