UW System officials announced Friday that UW-Whitewater Chancellor Dwight Watson will return to his job Monday after they investigated a claim of sexual misconduct at another university and found the claim to be “without merit.”
On the second day of fall classes, UW officials announced Watson would be put on paid leave pending an investigation. Greg Cook took over for him and has served since as interim chancellor.
The investigation started when a man Watson knew sent a Facebook message to the university Sept. 1 alleging Watson “sexually abused” the man as a student at the University of Northern Iowa, where Watson worked as a dean from 2010 to 2015, according to an investigative report dated Sept. 24 but shared with news media by the UW System on Friday.
The message also alleged Watson “crossed boundaries with students, even of other countries,” such as at Southwest Minnesota State University, where Watson was provost from 2015 to 2019 before coming to UW-Whitewater.
But a University of Northern Iowa investigation concluded, “based on a preponderance of the evidence, that Watson did not violate UNI’s policy of discrimination, harassment, and sexual misconduct,” the UW System report states.
Additionally, there were no records of any complaints or investigations about sexual misconduct by Watson at his other previous employers, including at Southwest Minnesota State University, according to the UW System report.
UW System officials investigated whether Watson was truthful during the hiring process when he answered “no” to the question of if he had ever been found to have engaged in sexual violence or sexual harassment at prior jobs, or if he had left employment during an active investigation into such matters.
The system investigation found that Watson was truthful with his answer.
The investigation also checked if there were any allegations or evidence of sexual misconduct by Watson against UW-Whitewater students, which there were not.
Board of Regents President Andrew Petersen said in a statement Friday that he was “glad this thorough investigation has concluded and that the allegations made against Chancellor Watson were found to be without merit.”
“We look forward to the Chancellor’s return in leading UW-Whitewater on Monday,” he said.
Watson in a statement Friday said he was “happy” to announce he will be returning as chancellor.
“I am pleased that the outcome of this extensive investigation concludes with the investigators’ findings that I was truthful during my hiring process with the University of Wisconsin and that there is no evidence of misconduct during my tenure at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater,” Watson wrote.
Watson’s personal relationship with the man who made the allegation against him started at the University of Northern Iowa but continued into Whitewater.
The man, and at times his son and the boy’s mother, lived with Watson because they had nowhere else to live, according to the UW System report.
Watson met the man and befriended him in spring 2014, the report states.
The man on Aug. 23, 2014, told the University of Northern Iowa that he was sexually harassed, but “he did not follow up with specific allegations,” the report states. There was no investigation then.
On March 3, 2015, the man “verbally alleges” that Watson sexually harassed him, and the university started an investigation. About two months later, the investigative report concluded Watson did not violate the university’s policy on sexual misconduct.
During parts of 2017 through 2019, the man was in jail and prison, according to the report timeline. He was released on parole in May 2019 with the condition that he have a stable place to live.
Watson “reluctantly” agreed to let the man reside at his home in Minnesota and then in Whitewater when the chancellor moved to take the new job so the man would not go back to prison, the report states.
The man moved out of Watson’s home Aug. 15, 2020, according to the timeline.
Watson during an August 2019 meeting informed his cabinet about the man living with him. He also told then-UW System President Ray Cross and said the relationship was non-sexual, according to the report.
Watson spoke with UW System Administration Senior Associate Vice President Shenita Brokenburr about the man three times.
At one point, Watson expressed concerns the man was unstable, not taking medication and was volatile, according to the report. Watson also said he feared the man would accuse him of sexual misconduct.
Some cabinet members, such as Cook and Kenny Yarbrough, who is the chief equity, diversity and inclusion officer at UW-W, told investigators Watson was compassionate and that he sees the best in people.
Back at UW-W
News of another investigation of UW-W’s highest official came at the start of a school year already roiled by COVID-19. Cook led the university during a tumultuous first month with rising case counts, but on Thursday he and other officials appeared more optimistic with how the numbers have looked recently.
Watson in his Friday statement thanked his cabinet for “tremendous work” during his absence.
“I know this was a period of additional uncertainty in uncertain times,” Watson wrote to the community at large. “I thank you for your patience, understanding, and your trust in the process.”
UW-W’s previous full-time chancellor, Beverly Kopper, eventually resigned after an investigation into her husband, Alan “Pete” Hill, found claims of sexual harassment against him had merit. He has denied those claims.
While some were critical of how Kopper and UW-W handled that situation, Watson in his statement said the UW System showed how seriously it took allegations of sexual misconduct.
“I remain vigilant in supporting our processes involving sexual violence and sexual harassment for the betterment of our students,” he wrote. “My focus now is on leading as Chancellor, I do not intend to issue any further public statements on this matter.”
This story was updated at 2:52 p.m. Friday with more details from the UW System’s investigative report.