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In wake of Castro resignation, Cal State launches investigations of system's handling of sexual harassment complaints

The CSU Board of Trustees meet on March 22, 2022.
Ed Source
A screenshot from the CSU Board of Trustees March 22 meeting.

This story was originally published by EdSource.

California State University’s board of trustees unanimously voted Tuesday to assess Title IX practices across the system, review sexual harassment complaints at Fresno State University and launch a task force to examine separation agreements with executives.

The trustees’ actions came after a meeting filled with condemnation and anger from CSU students and faculty members about former Chancellor Joseph I. Castro’s mismanagement of sexual harassment allegations at Fresno State University and the details surrounding Castro’s separation agreement with the nation’s largest public university system.

“Trust has been broken within our campus, with scars running much deeper than we may assume,” said Isaac Alferos, president of the Cal State Student Association and a CSU Fullerton student. “Our students have been failed by our most trusted leadership and are not eager to build back together.”

In February, a USA Today report revealed Frank Lamas, a former vice president for student affairs at Fresno State, was accused of sexual harassment “at least a dozen” times. Castro, who was president of the campus at the time, failed to take disciplinary action against Lamas and wrote him a positive recommendation letter.

CSU trustees also expressed their outrage about being “kept in the dark” about the Fresno State allegations and Castro’s involvement prior to being hired as chancellor in 2019.

“I am very disappointed and angry that we as a board were kept in the dark,” trustee Adam Day said. “But today we assert ourselves as leaders of this system and give clear and decisive direction on critically needed changes.”

Those changes include hiring Los Angeles-based employment lawyer Mary Lee Wegner to launch an external investigation into how Fresno State leaders responded to Title IX complaints and reports. The board ordered the investigation to be completed within 90 to 120 days, or less. The board also decided to:

  • Hire Philadelphia-based law firm Cozen O’Connor to conduct an independent assessment of Title IX practices across the 23 campuses in the CSU system.
  • Develop a systemwide policy on the right of administrators who leave or are removed from management to retreat to faculty positions, as well as letters of recommendation.
  • Assemble a task force to review CSU’s Executive Transition Program and ended the program by ceasing “transition rights” for newly hired executives until the board considers recommendations from the task force. The trustees asked for a report in May.

“The board is not sitting back and is aggressively going to move for change,” trustee Douglas Faigin said. “It would have been very helpful if we’d been aware, but we weren’t, and we’re going to change that.”

Castro toldUSA Today that he consulted then-Chancellor Tim White on the settlement that allowed Lamas to receive $260,000 and full retirement benefits.

The newspaper reported that Castro and White “agreed it was the best course to avoid a potentially costly lawsuit from Lamas, who had threatened to sue. It also prevented Lamas from exercising a clause in his job contract – known as ‘retreat rights’ – that Castro said may have enabled Lamas to take a faculty position as an assistant professor even if he’d tried to fire or discipline him.”

Under pressure from faculty and students, Castro resigned as CSU chancellor last month, but the board has been criticized for agreeing to pay the former chancellor $400,000 as part of the executive transition program. The program also allows Castro to become a professor at the system’s Cal Poly San Luis Obispo campus.

Faculty groups have expressed outrage at the settlement agreement and are demanding the Legislature conduct a separate investigation into CSU.

“When he was president at Fresno, (Castro) covered up and paid off a serial sexual harasser and now this board has behaved similarly by providing Castro with a $400,000 golden parachute and a year as a senior adviser to the board,” said Kevin Wehr, vice president of California Faculty Association, the union representing about 29,000 instructors. “Who on earth would take advice from someone who lied, who covered up bad behavior and then paid off the perpetrator. This is preposterous; it is a misuse of public funds and a violation of the public trust.”

Evelyn Nazario, vice chancellor of human resources for the system, said the Title IX assessment will include a review of Title IX complaints to identify which cases were handled appropriately and include interviews with students, faculty, staff, Title IX coordinators and administrators.

Title IX is the civil rights law that outlaws sex-based discrimination and harassment in any education program that receives federal financial aid.

Alferos, the student association president, said the board’s actions are just “step one” in a long process to rebuilding trust within the CSU community.

Ashley A. Smith covers higher education and other student success reforms for EdSource. She joined the publication in July 2019 after covering community colleges, for-profit schools and non-traditional students for Inside Higher Ed, in Washington D.C.