MacIver News Service | October 16, 2017

By M.D. Kittle

[Madison, Wis…] University of Wisconsin-Platteville Professor Sabina Burton has long alleged she has been harassed, threatened, and retaliated against by UW-P administrators for “standing up for what is right.”

And now Burton, the whistleblower facing dismissal after a contentious legal battle with the university’s chancellor and others, suspects politics is behind the effort to push her out.

Threatening Letter?

Documents obtained by MacIver News Service show Elizabeth Throop, then-UW-Platteville Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Education, contacted law enforcement after learning that Burton, a conservative, reached out to Gov. Scott Walker for help in her struggles against what the Criminal Justice associate professor describes as a “very corrupt, liberal administration.”

sabina burton letter to gov. walker.png

In a Sept. 4, 2015 email to the university’s police chief and HR director, Throop wrote that Burton’s letter to the Republican governor “seems like a real escalation of things.” The administrator claimed she had concerns for her personal safety “despite the lack of actual physical threat.” She said she consulted with UW-P Chancellor Dennis Shields and other administrators, and that she was “not interested in filing a complaint at this juncture.”

UW-P Officer Reginald Ihm in an incident report noted that he was “not given much information from the letter other than that in Throop’s opinion it was upsetting.”

Upsetting? Perhaps. Threatening? No.

Burton used some choice words in her plea to Walker, but the only threat contained in the letter was the professor’s rhetorical pledge to “put Wisconsin and Platteville on the national and international map and expose the corruption going on here.”

Walker’s staff forwarded Burton’s complaint onto University of Wisconsin System officials. It’s not clear what happened after that.

In the letter, Burton reminds Walker of their meeting at a Des Moines, Iowa Lincoln Day Dinner in March 2015, when the governor was preparing to run for president. Burton was introduced to Walker by a friend and official in the Republican National Committee so that the professor could “share some of the troubles I am facing at UW-Platteville.”

“A very corrupt, liberal administration is mercilessly harassing employees and students who are standing up for what is right,” Burton wrote to the governor.

Burton alleges administrators took away a grant she had landed for the university, kept her off committee seats, and effectively stalled her professional career at the university after she spoke out about the handling of a female student’s sexual harassment complaint.

She claims top UW-Platteville administrators with a liberal bent disregarded a faculty search committee’s recommendation for the vacant Liberal Arts and Education dean post. Burton was a member of that search and screen committee. The top candidate was a conservative, Burton wrote in her letter to Walker. Instead, Chancellor Dennis Shields pressured the committee to hire a “very outspoken liberal and strong critic of (Walker) from Iowa: Dr. Elizabeth Throop,” Burton claimed.

“Throop has since fired numerous tenured and nontenured faculty and managed to be named in three federal lawsuits and at least one other ERD/EEOC (Equal Right Division/Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) complaint for severe employment violations,” she wrote. Burton is a plaintiff in at least one of the noted lawsuits and has filed a couple of EEOC complaints.

In an interview with MacIver News, Burton said Throop articulated her political position in phone and on-campus interviews with the faculty committee.

“She stated something to the effect that she felt sorry for academia in Wisconsin under Walker. She was quick to let the search committee know that she opposed Act 10 and was ‘on our side.’ That Walker was a real threat to academic freedom,” Burton said, referring to the Republican governor’s reforms of the state’s public sector collective bargaining law that unions and Democrats abhor. “She seemed to believe that portraying herself as a strong liberal would help her get the job. On at least two occasions she said that she was a Democrat.”

Feel The Bern

Throop, who has since moved on to another academic leadership position in Maryland, is a backer of liberal causes and candidates. In August 2015, just days before she contacted UW-Platteville police about Burton’s letter to Walker, Throop donated $250 to Act Blue, a Democratic Party political action committee, according to Federal Election Committee records. On the same day, Throop cut a $250 check to the Bernie Sanders presidential election campaign.

Staci Strobl, the chairwoman of the university’s troubled Criminal Justice Department, also felt the Bern, donating several times to the Sanders campaign in 2016. Strobl resigned from the leadership position in October 2016, days after Burton went public with her story. She has since returned as interim chair.

Burton says Strobl had a very prominently displayed Bernie Sanders bumper sticker in her office, in violation of university policy.

The faculty committee, empaneled to preside over Burton’s appeal, first met in May – without Burton in attendance. Stomach ulcers, brought on by stress, forced Burton into the emergency room just hours before the tenure revocation hearing began. Burton has dealt with debilitating health concerns for the past few years, directly related to professional stress, according to medical records.

Strobl told the appeals panel she was afraid of Burton and her husband, Roger, a Marine veteran. She said he possessed the tendencies of an “active shooter.”

“I was scared. I know a lot about, unfortunately, active shooters. I know a lot about workplace violence. It’s something I studied in graduate school. It’s something I keep abreast of as part of my intellectual interest.” she said, when asked by the university’s attorney whether there was anything else Strobl “would like to tell the committee.”

“And I saw somebody – and a husband of somebody, to be completely frank, Roger Burton, who fits the profile of somebody who eventually snaps in a really violent way in the workplace, and for me it had to do with the escalation and the verbal animosity and the absolute steadfast commitment to a vague notion of justice and ‘everybody is against me,’ Strobl added.

Earlier in the testimony, Strobl said he agreed to come back as interim chairwoman of the Criminal Justice Department in the spring semester this year, “if Dr. Burton was not in the daily life of the department…”

She would soon get her wish.

“In Strobl’s educated opinion, service in the USMC and being a conservative makes you a mass murder risk. This is one of the most outrageous and unprofessional things I have ever heard and this woman heads the Criminal Justice Department,” Sabina Burton said in an email.

The university brought in two armed officers to search bags and possessions of those attending the two appeals hearings.

UW-Platteville spokeswoman Rose Smyrski declined to comment on the security measures, the hearing, or other personnel matters.

“As you are well aware, we do not comment on a pending employee matter,” Smyrski wrote in an email response to MacIver’s questions.

Burton said administrators were just using their “usual intimidation practices.” She noted the university-contracted private investigator who last year interrogated Burton at her home in response to a complaint that Shields eventually dismissed.

The professor said neither she nor her husband have ever threatened anyone.

“Treating my husband and I like we are potential mass murders, it’s ridiculous. Just because I wrote the governor and filed a lawsuit? I feel like sometimes I’m on a different planet,” Burton said.

Harmless Error’

Burton claims the faculty appeals panel was constituted in violation of university appeals procedures and that Shields did not follow University of Wisconsin System law in the appeals process.

Bob Kasieta, Burton’s attorney, called for the panel to dissolve because the university did not provide a proper statement of charges.

“The rules require that at the time those charges be delivered to the faculty member who is being subjected to this process, that faculty member must – not might, not maybe at a later date – but must receive the appeal procedure with that submission, and it is uncontroverted in this case that that did not happen,” the Madison attorney said, according to the transcript of last month’s hearing.

The university’s attorney, Jennifer Lattis, countered that Burton did receive the set of copies of the rules, but admitted that the procedure was not “followed to the letter.”

“So it was overlooked when we filed the charge, but our position has been that she received all – she received a copy of the rules, there was no violation of her due process…” Lattis said, calling the omission a “harmless error.”

Burton said she had to ask several times for a copy of the procedures. She eventually received links to the rules.

The panel seemed to brush off the charges by Burton’s attorney, and defended its failure to hold a hearing within 20 days, as the system rules stipulate.

Broad Arguments’

Burton has filed two federal lawsuits against the university, alleging discrimination and retaliation. Among other charges, the professor alleges the former interim chair of the Criminal Justice Department, Mike Dalecki, pressured her to drop the lawsuit. She was told “she might have been considered for the positions of dean or department chair, but that she could not expect to advance if she continued to engage in litigious behavior.”

In short, play ball or sit out.

A federal judge in Madison eventually sided with the university. So did the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago. Each court, however, chided Burton’s legal counsel at the time for representation failures.

“Burton’s problem is that she did not make these broad arguments to the district court,” states the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruling, issued earlier this year.

The professor claims her attorney’s shortcomings, too, were a matter of politics.

In March, Burton told Wisconsin Watchdog that her attorney at the time of the district court proceedings, Timothy Hawks, not only failed to adequately represent her, he “sabotaged” her case.

Hawks was recommended to Burton early on as a tough employee-rights attorney. She did not know his political leanings at the time.

Burton claims Hawks, an attorney for some of the biggest public unions in the state, was “especially upset when” Lattis informed him about Burton’s letter to Walker.

“That is when he (Hawks) opened up his political affiliation – very strong Democrat, and he very much dislikes Walker,” Burton said.

Last year, in a keynote address titled, “On Wisconsin: Life Without Collective Bargaining,”Hawks took aim at Walker and Act 10.

“When Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker declared open war against public sector unions, Tim was on the front lines,” the Wisconsin Fraternal Order of Police said of Hawks in announcing the speech.

Hawks and his Milwaukee firm have donated generously to Democratic Party causes, particularly to Walker opponents. The attorney has not returned requests for comment.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has granted Burton permission to sue the university again in federal court.

Big Questions

During questioning at last month’s continued dismissal hearing, the chancellor was combative, clearly aggravated by Kasieta’s questions. In the transcript, the attorney asserts that Shields did not establish just cause to move for Burton’s dismissal and that he treated the professor differently than other UW-P employees facing disciplinary actions. Shields counters that Burton did not act professionally, in accordance with the university’s rules of conduct, and she made university employees uncomfortable.

In his March letter recommending Burton’s dismissal, Shields alleged the professor has “engaged in disrespectful, harassing and intimidating behavior toward your colleagues.” Two months before, the chancellor, based on complaints from Throop and another administrator, ordered Burton to clean out her office and banned her from campus.

All of this despite the fact that Burton had excellent ratings from her students and an exemplary teaching record. She was given tenure – although after a long delay – based on merit. And she had been widely recognized as a leader in criminal justice education.

At one point in the hearing, Burton’s attorney asked the chancellor about the reported dysfunction in the department. The chancellor acknowledged there was dysfunction before Burton arrived, and that others were a source of the troubled department at that time.

“How many of those did you recommend for termination to a panel like this one?” Kasieta asked.

“Well, none. I think that would be the answer,” Shields responded.

A concluding appeals hearing is expected to be scheduled for sometime later this month.

Were Shields and his top administrators made uncomfortable because Burton was performing the role of whistleblower, and did they retaliate because of it? Those are the questions at the heart of Burton’s new litigation against Shields, Throop and the university. That’s why the embattled professor reached out to Wisconsin’s governor.

“I know you are running for president of the USA and I hope you will be successful but please don’t forget about your WI people,” Burton wrote in her letter to Walker. “I just live in the middle of cow-country in Platteville but I do care deeply for the young people of this great state who I have in my classes.”

This article appears courtesy of the MacIver Institute.