Seven months after Inver Hills Community College mysteriously banned a popular sociology instructor from campus, court records now show what all the fuss was about.
Dave Berger was accused of asking, or telling, a student to hand out pens with his union’s label.
Berger, 53, was put on “paid investigatory leave” in February and banned from the campus in Inver Grove Heights for more than three months while the college said it was looking into an undisclosed complaint against him.
In a court filing last week, Berger disclosed that the investigation ended in August with a decision to suspend him for five days without pay.
According to the disciplinary letter, he was cited for “inappropriate and unprofessional conduct” for allegedly approaching a student in January and pressuring him to distribute pens that bore the logo of the faculty union, Inver Hills United. He also was accused of being disrespectful to a staff member by refusing to talk to her and “lying to the investigator” about his actions.
At the time, Berger was one of the leaders of a faculty no-confidence vote against the college president, Tim Wynes.
Berger, who denies the allegations, has called it a “frivolous investigation” that targeted him for his union activity.
College officials declined to comment, citing the ongoing lawsuit.
David Riggs, the faculty union president at Inver Hills, called Berger’s punishment part of “a pattern of retaliation and harassment” of faculty members who criticize the administration. “I would like to say that it’s unbelievable, but … unfortunately, it’s like par for the course,” Riggs said.
Laurel Watt, who teaches study skills at the college, said the case sent a chilling message. “Most people find it absurd that you would be banned from campus for passing out pens and refusing to talk to somebody,” she said.
Berger, who is on sabbatical this year, is suing the college over its handling of the case. In his lawsuit, he says that school officials relied on “coerced and false” testimony in reaching its conclusions against him.
Two fellow instructors, Patrick McAleer and Stephen Baugh, submitted affidavits saying that the student involved in the pen incident told them both in April that he had been “coached and coerced” to say “negative and untrue things” about Berger. The student, who was not identified, said that a “Student Life employee” had threatened him with the loss of his student job if he “did not adhere to the scripted testimony,” according to the affidavits.
Berger’s lawsuit accuses Nicole Meulemans, the director of Student Life, of coaching and coercing false testimony from students. She did not respond to a request for comment.
In the disciplinary letter, Berger was cited for violating the public college system’s code of conduct and the state of Minnesota’s “Respectful Workplace Policy.” The letter was written by Connie Gores, the president of Southwest Minnesota State University, who was appointed to rule on the investigation.
“I find that your manipulative conduct with the student to be very troubling,” she wrote. She found that Berger had taken advantage of his position “by engaging a student to distribute Inver United pens.” When a staff member raised concerns about his actions, she wrote, “[you] failed to conduct yourself in a manner that demonstrates professionalism and respect for others.” She also concluded that Berger had “lied to the investigator regarding the circumstances and facts in this case.”
Berger, in a five-page rebuttal, said that the student had approached him for the union pens, not the other way around. He also denied being rude or trying to manipulate anyone. His union has since filed a grievance over the disciplinary action.