Ordinarily, as 2016 Faculty Member of the Year, Dave Berger would have the honor of marching at the head of the procession at Thursday’s graduation ceremony for Inver Hills Community College.

But since he’s been banned from campus and all related activities, he’ll have to miss it.

This week, Berger filed suit against the college where he has taught sociology for 25 years. He argues that his banishment was an act of retaliation for his union activities. The college, for its part, declined to comment and has yet to file its response in court.

For Berger, it’s been a disorienting ordeal. This week marks three months since he was ordered off campus and placed on paid “investigatory leave” after an unspecified complaint was filed against him. For most of that time, he says, he had no idea what the complaint was.

Berger, 52, insists he did nothing wrong, but he readily admits he’s “a rabble rouser.” As the grievance representative for the faculty union, he got into a testy verbal exchange with a college administrator last fall and was accused of violating the school’s code of conduct. Berger said the college dropped that case after an investigation found no wrongdoing.

He also helped lead a faculty no-confidence vote against the college president, Tim Wynes, in January. On Feb. 12, Berger found himself banned and under investigation again. “The first few weeks I had an identity crisis,” he admits. He was used to the rhythms of campus life; suddenly, he had no place to go. The college cut him off from the campus e-mail and ordered him not to discuss the case with students or colleagues.

“That whole life is gone,” he said. “I get up in the morning, I don’t know what to do.”

Berger, who is divorced with a grown son, found himself wandering shopping malls and state parks to fill his days. One day, on a lark, he took a trip to the southeastern Minnesota town of Elba. “Do you know much about Napoleon?” he asked wryly. “I said, ‘I’m in exile.’ I thought, what the hell, I went down to Elba.” And he shot a selfie to mark the occasion.

One of the roughest parts, he said, has been keeping his distance from friends and students at Inver Hills. When students reach out to him, he said, “I send them e-mails saying, ‘At this point I cannot talk to you.’ ”

Since he’s on paid leave, he hasn’t run short of money. But he bristles at the suggestion that he should enjoy the time off. “People think if you get paid, it makes everything better. It’s not a paid vacation,” he said. “You feel helpless. You gain 40 pounds. And you can’t do what you love the most.”

At this point, he’s unsure if he’ll be allowed to teach his summer classes. He’s been told the investigation could take another month or more. In the meantime, he takes heart from allies who have turned out to support him, including the colleagues who voted him faculty member of the year.

When he got word of the honor, he got “kind of emotional.”

“When you’re in a situation like this and you can’t talk about it, you feel really alone,” he said. “I didn’t know I had so many friends.”

 

maura.lerner@startribune.com