University treads lightly on ‘slut-shaming’, retaliation charges at student forum

M.D. Kittle
Posted: Nov 11, 2016 7:33 AM
University treads lightly on ‘slut-shaming’, retaliation charges at student forum

PLATTEVILLE, Wis. – Attempting to assuage student fears, University of Wisconsin-Platteville administrators Thursday stressed the campus is a safe place and that they are taking seriously concerns that sexual harassment and assault complaints are not being addressed.

Melissa Gormley, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Education, and Dean of Students Sherry Nevins led a “student dialogue” that had much to do with UW-P’s troubled Criminal Justice Department. Nevins also walked students through the campus community’s sexual harassment and sexual violence reporting resources.

But the administrators left out some key details about the allegations of sexual harassment and workplace retaliation dogging the university.

A Wisconsin Watchdog investigative report late last month laid out the many charges by UW-P associate Criminal Justice professor Sabina Burton.

Burton claims administration ostracized, punished and ultimately robbed her of due process rights after she assisted a student who felt sexually harassed by another professor.

TOUGH TOPIC: University of Wisconsin-Platteville administrators Sherry Nevins (left) and Melissa Gormley address questions and concerns about reporting sexual harassment and assault on the rural university campus. Thursday’s forum drew about 30 students, faculty and staff.

In October 2012, professor Lorne Gibson handed student Alexandra Zupec a note during class. It said, “Call me tonight!!!,” with Gibson’s private cellphone number on it.

Unnerved, Zupec went to Burton for help. Burton was told by  Thomas Caywood, department chairman at the time, that Gibson’s solicitous note was all just a “secret experiment on social norms.”

Gibson, according to a lawsuit, had passed a similar note to another female student.

Zupec, who was not informed about any experiment, 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.”

At Thursday’s forum, Nevins assured students that the process of dealing with the sexual harassment complaint was followed and that Gibson is no longer on campus.

“Those are two factual statements I can assure you of,” she declared.

But Nevins left out the fact, according to court documents, that Gibson was not let go because of the complaint; he was pushed out because he butted heads with then-interim Criminal Justice Department Chairman Mike Dalecki.

And the process? While at first voicing concerns that Gibson’s conduct may have created an “atmosphere of potential sexual harassment,” that his note passing was “a profoundly serious issue,” then-Dean of Liberal Arts and Education Elizabeth Throop later sided with Gibson and Caywood.

In a 2015 deposition, Throop, who is now UW-P’s provost, described Zupec as a biased student. She said Burton came to her “with a complaint of a biased student,” and that Gibson’s behavior was “not a sexual advance.”

RELATED: UW-Platteville Criminal Justice chairwoman resigning amid campus controversy 

A faculty grievance 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.”

Of ‘thong underwear’ and ‘beautiful lovers’

Administrators did not discipline Gibson for the solicitous note. He continued to generate complaints with questionable conduct.

SPEAKING UP: UW-Platteville professor Sabina Burton is taking on the university, alleging she and others are the victims of discrimination, intimidation and retaliation.

Gibson’s tests included odd, even arguably sexually inappropriate questions.

““Bald men are beautiful lovers. Dr. G. must be a beautiful lover. This is an example of ___?” one quiz question asked.

“Dr. Gibson wears thong underwear. He’s gorgeous, charming, funny, kind, modest, and intelligent. Thong underwear must make people awesome. This is an example of ___?” another asked.

Gormley, the dean of Liberal Arts and Education, stressed that the university took the harassment charge seriously.

“The process was followed. The student’s concern was taken very seriously. The individual in question is no longer on campus,” she said. The administrator also noted that Burton’s lawsuit against the university was dismissed, although Burton has appealed the federal district court ruling. Gormley said she could not comment on the case while it is pending.

Asked by a student to address Wisconsin Watchdog’s investigative report, Gormley offered the same response.

“Addressing the Watchdog article is difficult for me because there are a number of personnel issues that are brought into that article that I legally and ethically cannot comment on,” she said. “As a campus community we fully respect to have an open environment in which people can address and engage in these issues. I think that’s fundamentally important.” Hence the forum, she said.

But Burton said she and others who have reported sexual harassment allegations see anything but an open environment. She said a graduate student instructor was told by an administrator that, “We don’t have sexual incidents on this campus.”

Students in recent days have raised concerns that UW-Platteville administrators have covered up sexual assault complaints.

“A lot of students don’t feel safe coming forward,” one student said at Thursday’s forum. “They feel like they are being blamed or criticized or what they did or did not do is being questioned versus the perp(etrator).”

Sexual assault is widely underreported.  About 20 percent of student victims go to police, according to a Justice Department review. But  an analysis by the American Association of University Women (AAUW)  found 91 percent of colleges and universities in the U.S. reported zero incidents of rape in 2015.

Another attendee at Thursday’s forum asked about retaliation against those who report sexual harassment or assault allegations.

“In my experience since I’ve been in this position, I have not been aware that (retaliation) has ever happened,” Nevins said. “Could it happen? Of course. But then that’s another policy violation, as it were, for the person doing the retaliating.”

“The opposite is true. If a person knows and doesn’t bring it forward, that’s a bigger concern of underreporting and not sharing,” the dean added.

Burton said she reported a sexual harassment case involving a student and, despite administration claims that the matter is well in the past, has been punished ever since.

She said the chancellor has threatened to fire her, that a former department chairman threatened her life, and she has been threatened with discipline for defending herself from defamation and verbal assaults.

“They would have stopped if I would have just kept my mouth shut and accepted a subordinate role in my department,” the professor said. “I wasn’t willing to do that because that meant I would have accepted their retaliation and the cost that came with helping a student report the sexual harassment complaint.”

Court depositions also note that Caywood, the former Criminal Justice Department chair, stated that women do not belong in criminal justice. Caywood, coincidentally, retired of his own volition and, according to documents, was rewarded with full salary for several months after he stepped down.

“How does someone like that become chair?” a student asked at the forum. “Because that terrifies me that someone would say that because that means they don’t just believe it, they are willing to profess it to someone else.”

While she said she doesn’t have knowledge of Caywood’s comment, Gormley said Caywood is “no longer with the university.”

“That statement, while I can’t verify it, is not part of our department philosophy now at all,” the administrator said.

Turnout for Thursday’s forum was scant. It drew some 30 students and faculty, less than half of those who showed up for a similar forum on Nov. 1 that administrators cancelled moments before it was set to begin.

Some students complained of not being notified or that they had a scheduling conflict with Thursday’s 4 p.m. forum.

Burton was teaching a class at the time and could not attend. She believes the scheduling conflict was no accident.

“I felt left out. I felt like they wanted to control the entire event without me being there and give it their own spin like they did before,” Burton said following the forum.

Rose M. Smyrski, vice chancellor for university relations, said UW-P’s student senate had asked that the forum be promptly rescheduled. A senate resolution asked that the event be held before the Thanksgiving break.

Smyrski said 4 p.m. is a time that is “typically convenient for students.”