UW-Platteville chancellor prepares to fire whistleblower professor

M.D. Kittle
Posted: Apr 03, 2017 10:12 PM
UW-Platteville chancellor prepares to fire whistleblower professor
Part 17 of 16 in the series 'Troubled' Campus

MADISON, Wis. — The embattled professor who blew the whistle on misconduct in the University of Wisconsin-Platteville’s Criminal Justice Department is on the verge of being fired by the administrator she accused of corruption and cover-up.

REMOVED: Professor Sabina Burton looks on as UW-Platteville Police Chief Joe Hallman signs off on Burton’s return of her office keys. In January, Burton was ordered to clean out her campus office. Now the chancellor who she accuses of retaliation is moving to fire her.

UW-Platteville Associate Professor Sabina Burton on Thursday received a letter from Chancellor Dennis Shields advising her that he has “found just cause” to dismiss her.

“Having received and evaluated the information I have just described, I find that the evidence supports dismissing you for cause from your tenured faculty position,” Shields wrote.

Burton is entitled to a hearing before the faculty senate, but she said she is confident the hearing will be a show trial, just as Shield’s investigation has been.

“I am at a point where I just want to give up. I feel burned out,” the professor said in an email to Wisconsin Watchdog. That’s what administrators are counting on, Burton said.

“The only way Shields can fire me is if he withholds the hearing in front of a fair panel from me. He can easily do that as he has the power to staff and pressure the panel members,” she said.

As first reported in Wisconsin Watchdog’s series, Troubled Campus, Burton alleges she has been the victim of harassment, discrimination and retaliation at the hands of UW-P administrators since October 2012, when Burton stood up for a female student who said she had been sexually harassed by a male professor in the Criminal Justice Department.

Burton claims administrators took away a grant and 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 the former acting chairman of the department, that she was defamed by an instructor, and saw her health rapidly deteriorate.

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

She also sued the university and some of its administrators in 2015 in federal court, eventually losing the case.

Shield’s dismissal letter arrived within days of a ruling by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissing Burton’s civil rights lawsuit against the university. In it, the professor charged that she had been discriminated and retaliated against for more than four years. The court found no evidence of retaliation due in large part to the limited evidence that Burton’s attorney at the time brought forward.

Now Burton says administrators are doing what they have long wanted to do: get rid of her without the shadow of a retaliation claim hanging over them. But her dismissal, she says, would only drive home her civil rights claim.

RELATED: UW-P professor blames union attorney with political ax to grind for appeals court loss

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 chancellor at the time advised Burton that he was “initiating the dismissal process” based on a complaint filed by two administrators. Shields informed Burton that if the allegations were 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 and has provided evidence refuting accusations regarding internal email communications, for instance. Court depositions and other communications also show administrators making conflicting statements.

In his dismissal letter last week, Shields claims an investigation, conducted by UW System administrator Petra Roter, found that Burton engaged in “disrespectful, harassing and intimidating behavior” toward her colleagues “in an attempt to undermine them professionally and damage their reputation and careers.”

Roter last month 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.

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

“Everyone interviewed agreed that Dr. Burton is an excellent teacher,” the report states.

Shields in his letter notes that Burton recorded a series of internal conversations, meetings and proceedings without prior consent or notification. Roger Burton, the professor’s husband, then published the information on a website the Burtons created called UniversityCorruption.org. The site includes a raft of allegations against UW-P administrators and, in many cases, evidence to support the claims.

Burton doesn’t deny making the recordings. She says the recordings provided proof of her accusations. Besides, Wisconsin is a “one-party consent” state, meaning only one of the parties involved must consent to the recording. Burton consented.

“Because the consenting party in these states can also be the individual doing the recording, the conversation may be — and often is — recorded without the knowledge or consent of any other party,” according to an op-ed in the Wisconsin Law Journal.

Employers in Wisconsin may implement policies expressly prohibiting such secret recordings, but not if the employee claims the recording was done in order to document discrimination or harassment, according the Wisconsin Law Journal.

In the dismissal letter, Shields fails to note the false allegations colleagues made against Burton, including potentially defaming comments about the professor’s mental health and her German heritage.

And Shields asserts Burton’s “mission to expose corruption” has dragged students into “conflicts that are outside of the academic mission/environment of the university.”

Burton denies the allegation, saying she has never brought her disputes with the university into the classroom.

PIONEER PROTEST: UW-Platteville students have created Pioneers Against Injustice, a Facebook page to rally support for Burton.

But some UW-P students have created a Facebook page expressing their outrage over the university’s treatment of the popular professor.

Pioneers Against Injustice was formed to “spread awareness and gain support against the unfair treatment Dr. Burton has received from UW-Platteville after advocating for a student.”

“As students at UWP, it is important that we uphold the faculty and staff that have the courage to challenge sexual harassment on campus. Please join us in spreading awareness about the injustice Doctor Burton is experiencing and spreading awareness to our community,” one post states. Students handed out flyers at the UW-P fieldhouse as well.

Last fall, administrators, with little notice, canceled a forum with students regarding their dispute with Burton, as well as concerns about what some students have described as a cover-up of sexual assaults on campus. The approximately 70 students who showed up for the meeting went ahead with the session, airing their frustrations. Burton took questions at that event.

This week, Burton sounded defeated in her email to Wisconsin Watchdog.

“What good will an appeal do? That process is most likely rigged as well. As long as corrupt liberals can do whatever they please in a conservative state there is no hope for justice,” said the professor.

M.D. Kittle is bureau chief for Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment reporter for Watchdog.org. Contact him at mkittle@watchdog.org.

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