A popular sociology instructor is suing Inver Hills Community College, saying that he was defamed and banned from campus for leading a no-confidence vote against the school’s president, Tim Wynes.
Dave Berger, who has taught at Inver Hills for 25 years, has been on paid “investigatory leave” since February, when he was told that an unspecified complaint had been filed against him.
In a lawsuit filed Tuesday in Dakota County District Court, Berger claims that he was placed on leave in retaliation for his role in the January no-confidence vote. The lawsuit also accuses Wynes, the college president, of defamation, saying that Wynes falsely stated publicly that the complaint against Berger was related to sexual harassment.
“Wynes made the defamatory statements with full knowledge that the statements were false,” the lawsuit said.
Wynes could not be reached for comment Tuesday. The college issued a brief statement saying it could not comment on pending litigation. The third defendant named in the lawsuit, the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, also declined to comment.
Berger, 52, seeks to be reinstated and awarded damages for “emotional pain and suffering.” But he says his main goal is to clear his name. “I’m looking forward to my voice finally being heard again,” he said.
Berger said he has been under a virtual gag order since Feb. 12, when the college placed him on leave and told him not to set foot on the campus in Inver Grove Heights or discuss the case with students or co-workers. At the time, he was told that a complaint had been filed against him, but the college refused to say what the allegations were. Officials kept him in the dark for more than two months, he said, until he was finally contacted by an investigator at the end of April.
Berger said he has been advised by his lawyer not to comment on the complaint itself, “because that could be construed as interfering with the investigation.”
The lawsuit, however, states that this spring, Wynes told faculty members at another college, where he was a finalist for the job of president, that Berger’s complaint was “related to sexual harassment.” The lawsuit said that the statement was reckless and false. “None of the allegations … were pertaining to sexual harassment,” the suit said.
Berger said that the entire ordeal has taken its toll and that it’s not over. “To me, I’ve been damaged beyond repair already,” he said. “It felt like I was in forced retirement, but it was more forced exile.”
In the meantime, faculty members and students have rallied to his support. In April, colleagues voted him faculty member of the year. This week, the creators of a Facebook page called “Bring Berger Back” announced that they’re planning a silent protest at Thursday’s graduation ceremony. In addition, 350 people have signed an online petition demanding Berger’s reinstatement.
“Dave is a leader in the classroom and outside the classroom,” said Laurel Watt, a colleague who helped organize the vote for faculty member of the year. “If he did something so terrible that he should be banned from campus as he has been, then don’t you think they would have moved quickly and swiftly to fire him? Why pay him for weeks and weeks not to work? That’s what tells me they don’t have anything on him.”
David Riggs, president of the faculty union, has called the college’s action against Berger unprecedented.
“Most people believe that it is connected to the no-confidence vote,” Riggs said in April. “So there’s a certain level of anger and disbelief that they’ve been able to get away with it for as long as they have.”
Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384