MacIver News Service | May 9, 2018
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON, Wis. – Embattled University of Wisconsin-Platteville Criminal Justice Professor and whistleblower Sabina Burton has one more chance to make her case to keep her job.
On Thursday, the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents will decide what to do with UW-Platteville Chancellor Dennis Shields’ recommendation to fire Burton and strip the respected professor of her tenure.
A hearing is slated for 2 p.m. Thursday (May 10) in room 1820 of UW-Madison’s Van His Hall, 1220 Linden Drive, Madison. Burton plans to be in attendance.
“If you care about student safety, protection from sexual abuse, tenure rights, academic freedom or First Amendment rights you should take a stand with (Dr. Burton)” proclaims a website Burton’s husband, Roger Burton, set up in his wife’s defense.
Burton’s professional exile began in January 2017, when Shields ordered her to clean out her desk and prohibited her from being on campus while an investigation into complaints against the professor continued.
Three months later, the chancellor sent Burton a letter advising her that he had “found just cause” to dismiss her. A series of faculty appeals committee hearings followed. Just before Christmas, the panel, handpicked by the chair of the Faculty Senate committee who has worked in UW-Platteville administration, sided with Shields in calling for Burton’s dismissal.
UW-Platteville administrators accuse the tenured professor of engaging in “disrespectful, harassing and intimidating behavior” toward her colleagues. Burton counters that she has been retaliated and discriminated against ever since October 2012, when she blew the whistle on a male Criminal Justice professor accused of sexually harassing a female student.
In a brief to the Board of Regents, Burton asserts what she has long claimed, that the chancellor’s recommendation does not meet the standard of just cause required to support her firing and that her “due process rights were repeatedly violated in the appeal process.”
“Dr. Burton respectfully requests that the Board dismiss the recommendations of the Chancellor and that they reverse the Chancellor’s order of her suspension and banishment from campus,” the brief states.
In his dismissal letter, Shields claimed the investigation, conducted by UW System administrator Petra Roter, determined Burton treated her colleagues poorly, “in an attempt to undermine them professionally and damage their reputation and careers.”
The faculty appeals panel agreed.
“We concur with the Statement of Charges that Dr. Burton’s behavior was unprofessional and that it significantly harmed the functioning of the Criminal Justice Department,” the panel stated in its findings. “We find that this behavior perpetuated and enhanced the dysfunctional atmosphere in the department and impaired the efficient and the effective operation of the workplace.”
Roter’s report, however, noted that the CJ department was dysfunctional for many reasons, including leadership deficiencies.
The panel asserts it was “particularly troubling” Burton’s “disrespectful” behavior continued several years after a sexual harassment complaint that sparked Burton’s five-year battle with administration had, according to the panel, been resolved.
Burton disputes the allegations, countering that university administration engaged in a years-long campaign of intimidation and retaliation against her after she stood up for the female student.
Burton claims administrators took away a grant and committee seats, effectively stalled her career, and repeatedly threatened her job for criticizing the university’s handling of the sexual harassment complaint. She alleges a former acting chairman of the department physically threatened her and that she was defamed by an instructor.
“I was threatened. I was harassed. I was intimidated,” Burton said told MacIver News Service in December.
Shield’s dismissal letter last year arrived within days of a ruling by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissing Burton’s civil rights lawsuit against the university. The court found no evidence of retaliation due in large part to the limited evidence that Burton’s attorney at the time brought forward.
Burton claims she is being drummed out because she is a conservative on a campus run by partisan liberals.
As MacIver News Service reported in November, documents show Elizabeth Throop, then-UW-Platteville Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Education, contacted law enforcement after learning that Burton reached out to Gov. Scott Walker for help in her battles with the university.
“Dr. Burton advocated for a student victim of sexual harassment in October, 2012. She became the target of retaliation for her advocacy. When she complained about the retaliation she received more retaliation for her complaints and her complaints were ignored and denied in violation of policy and law,” Burton’s brief states. “She asked Governor Walker for help and three police reports were filed against her because she contacted the Governor.”
While UW-P administration won’t allow Burton in the classroom, or even on the Platteville campus, they have taken away the one teaching opportunity she had.
Burton has, by all accounts, successfully taught online Criminal Justice classes for the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. In February, Joanne Wilson, UW-P Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs denied Burton’s “overload request,” once more forcing the professor out of the job she loves.
“Thank you for reaching out to inform us that your overload, which is the mechanism through which your work for UWM must be authorized, was denied. I also thank you for your offer to continue to teach your courses for free,” wrote UW-M’s Department of Criminal Justice chairwoman in an email to Burton sent Feb. 16. “As the Board of Regents is one employer and we are governed by its policies, we cannot employ you in excess of your 100% appointment with Platteville without the overload nor can we accept your offer to teach without pay.” Of course, Burton was not teaching at UW-P at the time. She was locked out of her classroom.
Her contract with UW-M was terminated immediately.
“I also want to thank you for the work you have done at UW-Milwaukee. I am sorry this has happened and am disappointed we could not find a way to work this out,” the chairwoman wrote.
In the most recent faculty hearings, Burton’s attorney pointed out several instances where it appears administrators and their legal counsel did not follow system policy in the dismissal and review process. The records note conflicting statements by university officials.
Burton also has filed another discrimination complaint and lawsuit against the university, charges she believes will be supported. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued a right-to-sue letter to the professor, allowing her to proceed with the legal action.
A UW-P spokeswoman referred MacIver News Service to the university’s previous comments. University administrators have repeatedly told MacIver that they cannot comment on personnel matters.