MacIver News Service | May 14, 2018
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON, Wis. – In the age of #MeToo and campus speech battles, whistleblower Professor Sabina Burton’s fight to keep her job is of particular interest.
“Gadflies, critics of institutional practices or collegial norms, even the occasional malcontent, have all been known to play an invaluable and constructive role in the life of academic departments and institutions,” the American Association of University Professors asserts.
The professionally exiled Criminal Justice Professor has long claimed she is the victim of harassment, discrimination, and retaliation at the hands of a “corrupt” University of Wisconsin-Platteville administration.
University of Wisconsin System attorney Jennifer Lattis, in defending UW-P’s Chancellor Dennis Shields, insists Burton has been incorrigible, insubordinate, demeaning and disrespectful to administrators and faculty for years. Lattis contends there “was no other choice” but to seek Burton’s dismissal and strip her of her tenure.
Dismissing a tenured UW System professor is a rare act of discipline. Lattis said there have been perhaps 10 over the past 20 years.
Now, the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents will decide whether Burton will join the rare ranks of the removed as it weighs evidence for and against the professor’s firing. A decision is expected next month.
On Thursday, members of the board heard oral arguments by Burton’s husband, Roger Burton, and Lattis.
Roger Burton laid out the case of a respected professor who has been put through the academia wringer for standing up for a student and fighting against university misconduct.
“We’re not here because Dr. Burton did wrong. This is a case of corruption and cover-up, political persecution, and Dr. Burton is a whistleblower,” Roger Burton told the Regents. “Chancellor Shields and others have harassed Dr. Burton mercilessly over the past five years.”
That whistleblower declaration is where things get more legally thorny.
The professor says her troubles began in October 2012, when a female Criminal Justice student, Alexandra Zupec, confided in her that a male Criminal Justice professor had hastily handed her a note in class. The note, hand-written by Professor Lorne Gibson, emphatically stated, ‘Call me tonight!!!’ It included Gibson’s private cellphone number.
“We’re not here because Dr. Burton did wrong. This is a case of corruption and cover-up, political persecution, and Dr. Burton is a whistleblower,” Roger Burton told the Regents.
Burton immediately brought the student’s concern to administration. The Dean of UW-P’s college of Liberal Arts and Education at first shared Burton’s concerns that Gibson’s act was highly inappropriate.
But the chairman of the Criminal Justice Department at the time advised that Gibson’s solicitous note was merely a “secret experiment on social norms.” Except Gibson told no one about his “experiment,” in which he handed a note to Zupec and another female student in a different class.
Soon, Burton said, administrators began to come down hard on her, while excusing Gibson’s behavior. Gibson did apologize to Zupec, but a faculty grievance committee didn’t buy Gibson’s apology or his explanation of the “experiment.”
“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 our [sic] review,” the committee wrote in an April 2013 letter to Chancellor Shields.
In an email to his students, Gibson apologized to “anyone who wasted time outside of class in reacting to my example, or for any anxiety it may have caused.”
“Please to not feel compelled to identify yourself as one of the example subjects or the groups,” Gibson concluded.
The faculty committee was appalled.
“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 in its letter. “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’).”
The committee described Gibson’s email to his class as a kind of “slut-shaming,” suggesting that the professor has “serious liabilities and lacks even fundamental understanding of structural sexism.”
But Dr. Gibson remained a member of the UW-Platteville Criminal Justice faculty for another 2 1/2 years. As Professor Burton pointed out last week during her dismissal hearing, Gibson was ultimately recommended for merit pay, and he was elected as chairman of the Criminal Justice Department, although as a non-tenured professor he could not accept the position. Gibson’s teaching contract was not ultimately renewed because he butted heads with the interim department chairman at the time, documents suggest.
Lattis told the Regents that Gibson was “reprimanded” for what she described as a “stupid” and “inappropriate” experiment that “did border on, if not constitute, sexual harassment.” But she, as administration has done for the better part of six years, has insisted that Gibson’s note was, indeed, just an “experiment.”
In a 2015 deposition, interim provost Elizabeth Throop, who was Dean of Liberal Arts and Education in 2012, described Zupec as a biased student. Throop claimed Burton came to her “with a complaint of a biased student,” and that Gibson’s behavior was “not a sexual advance.”
Pattern of Behavior
As the record shows, Gibson’s inappropriate conduct did not end with the classroom notes. His tests included strange, 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 test question asked.
When asked about the test questions at Thursday’s Regents hearing, Lattis, the UW-System attorney, said she didn’t “know anything about that,” that the matter was “never brought forth in the record.”
Lattis also told Regents that Zupec, the student who Gibson handed the note to, was “satisfied with the process,” and “did not request additional process to be taken.
Zupec told Wisconsin Watchdog in 2016 that she definitely was not satisfied with the process. She ended up leaving the university.
“I thought he (Gibson) was a complete creep,” she said. “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.”
Gibson left and the Criminal Justice Department chairman was removed from his position after the faculty grievance committee found he had “seriously mishandled” the student complaint and punished Burton for reporting it.
“Now that’s where the story should have ended, right?” Lattis told the Regents. “Because it was over, it was done. But Dr. Burton, for whatever reasons, for her own personal reasons, she wouldn’t let it go.”
“Harassing the faculty and demeaning your colleagues is not free speech. That’s workplace misconduct. That’s why we are here today,” Lattis told the Regents.
Lattis painted the picture of an obsessed professor who couldn’t let bygones be bygones. A professor who held grudges, even against new junior colleagues who were not at the university at the time of the sexual harassment complaint. Burton received multiple “letters of direction,” Lattis said, warning the professor of unacceptable conduct. Burton “disregarded” the letters, Lattis said, adding that Burton would not “moderate her behavior to be a reasonable colleague.”
But is the university moving to fire an unrepentant whistleblower who claims she has been retaliated against for speaking truth to power?
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.
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 department was dysfunctional for many reasons, including leadership deficiencies.
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.”
The professor has filed several Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints against university administrators and a couple of lawsuits. Those actions certainly don’t sit well with UW-Platteville leadership.
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.
If Burton is indeed fired, she suspects her current legal challenge alleging retaliation would become more pointed. The 7th Circuit in dismissing the original lawsuit noted that Burton had not been fired. In fact, as Lattis pointed out, Burton received tenure and a pay raise, as well as a “new and better office” since the harassment complaint.
True, but 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.
She has been called crazy by members of the Criminal Justice Department, and told by an administrator that she was “all alone on a sinking ship.” When she complained to the Criminal Justice Department chairman and the dean, she was told she was not acting like a “team player. And she was told that “women do not belong in the criminal justice field.”
“She was isolated from the department. She’s been ostracized,” Roger Burton told the Regents. “There was a gag oder on her.”
Political Charges and Recorded Conversations
Professor Burton also charges that she was targeted because she is a conservative on a liberal college campus.
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.
“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.”
One of the more serious charges lodged against Burton is that she recorded private Criminal Justice Department meetings, violating her colleagues’ trust. Roger Burton also posted transcripts of the meetings on a website he created in defense of his wife.
“Recording and distribution of professional evaluations is just flatly a violation of trust,” Lattis said.
The charge became a focal point of the Regents’ questions following oral arguments.
The Burtons noted that, under Wisconsin public meeting laws, university meetings are open to the public unless members move to go into closed sessions. When Regent Jose Delgado asked whether the meetings are subject to state open meetings laws, Lattis said, “It’s complicated.”
Professor Burton said her colleagues knew that she was taping the meetings, and the sessions were not closed.
“Attorney Lattis, am I hearing this correctly? That the process of open meetings is a little more loose on campus? In other words, there should have been a moment where they went into closed session but they didn’t?” Asked Regent Tracey Klein.
“That’s possible,” Lattis said. “We just don’t know.”
Burton said she made the recordings because she was previously threatened in the meetings, and she wanted to prove her accusations. Wisconsin is a “one-party consent” state, meaning only one of the parties involved must consent to the recording. As a whistleblower claiming official misconduct, she also may have additional protections under the law. Employers in Wisconsin may implement policies prohibiting secret recordings, but not if the employee claims the recording was done in order to document discrimination or harassment, according to an op-ed in the Wisconsin Law Journal.
There is no doubt that Burton has been persistent, even disagreeable, in her challenges to administration. But harassing? Administration thinks so.
“Harassing the faculty and demeaning your colleagues is not free speech. That’s workplace misconduct. That’s why we are here today,” Lattis told the Regents.
“It’s not threatening colleagues (when) pointing out corrupt actions and making legitimate complaints about specifics,” Roger Burton countered. He insists his wife’s case is about academic freedom and free speech, two sacred protections on UW System campuses.
He pointed to the American Association of University Professors’ statement “On Collegiality as a Criterion for Faculty Evaluation.
“Criticism and opposition do not necessarily conflict with collegiality,” the association asserts. “Gadflies, critics of institutional practices or collegial norms, even the occasional malcontent, have all been known to play an invaluable and constructive role in the life of academic departments and institutions. They have sometimes proved collegial in the deepest and truest sense.”
UW-Platteville administration does not view “malcontent” Professor Sabina Burton as anything other than playing a disruptive force on campus.
Burton is not only demanding the dismissal recommendation be dismissed, she is asking the Regents to call a special, independent investigation into the conduct of the chancellor and the UW System’s legal counsel.
“Dr. Burton’s behavior did not impair the efficiency of the university, it impaired the efficiency of coverups by a corrupt government in a university where compassion begets retaliation, sexual abuse is covered up and loyalty to the Democratic Party seems to be the ultimate criterion for promotion,” Roger Burton said. “No wonder sexual assault victims are afraid to file complaints in the UW System. No wonder faculty have lost faith in protecting of tenure.”