Former Cal State chancellor displayed 'blind spot' to complaints of sexual harassment at Fresno State, report says
This story was originally published by EdSource.
Former California State University Chancellor Joseph I. Castro failed to aggressively respond to sexual harassment complaints against a former Fresno State administrator, allowing the behavior to continue without serious repercussions, according to newly released findings from an outside attorney’s investigation into his handling of the incidents.
“The president’s failure to more aggressively respond to reports of Lamas’ alleged misconduct also allowed such conduct to continue because there were no serious repercussions for it,” according to the report, which details that by mid-2016, Castro, who was the president of Fresno State at the time, was aware of the allegations against Frank Lamas, the campus’ former vice president of student affairs. CSU released the document Thursday.
While Fresno State officials did address each of those misconduct complaints made between 2014 and 2019 against Lamas, some of their responses followed CSU policy and others did not, the investigation found.
The report also said Castro, president of the Fresno campus between 2013 and 2020, “consistently did not take any significant action against but instead supported Lamas throughout his employment even in the face of multiple allegations, growing evidence, and ultimately, confirmed findings of Lamas’ alleged misconduct.”
The university received at least 12 complaints of sexual harassment involving Lamas over six years. A federal law known as Title IX prohibits sexual discrimination in an education program that receives federal financial assistance.
While some action was taken by the campus “to explore and address each of these reports,” there were deficiencies. More could have been done, such as conducting an earlier investigation” into 2014 and 2016 complaints, the report said.
Castro’s “only actions” were to verbally counsel Lamas, “persuade (rather than order) him” to attend training in 2016 and to have windows installed in Lamas’ office, according to the report. Castro also told Lamas to immediately reinstate a Title IX coordinator when Lamas removed her from committees in 2016.
“Notably, the president did not document any of these actions, issue written warnings, mention these concerns in Lamas’ performance reviews or put him on a performance improvement plan,” according to the report. “Instead, he gave Lamas very positive performance reviews.”
Castro recommended Lamas for presidential positions both within and outside the CSU system at least eight times from 2016 through 2019, including for two CSU presidencies.
“The president exhibited a blind spot about Lamas and the impact his conduct had on others despite multiple allegations and confirmed findings of his inappropriate workplace behavior,” according to the report.
In 2020, six months before Castro was named systemwide chancellor, he agreed to a $260,000 settlement agreement with Lamas, which included retirement benefits and a promise of a glowing letter of recommendation for Lamas in exchange for his resignation. Former Chancellor Tim White approved the agreement.
The report found the settlement didn’t violate CSU policies and that the payment was reasonable. But the positive nature of the recommendation letter was inappropriate, it states.
“As President of Fresno State, my decisions on Title IX matters were guided by campus and California State University system policies and protocol, the direction of my then Chancellor Timothy White and General Counsel Andrew Jones, my campus counsel, and policy experts at Fresno State and in the Chancellor’s office,” he said. “University leaders in the United States face complex and delicate personnel issues every day.”
Castro resigned from the chancellor position earlier this year amid an outcry from students and faculty upset over how he handled the complaints. He said he’s learned “many lessons from my handling of the Title IX matter involving Frank Lamas at Fresno State” and he would use those lessons to become a more effective leader in the future.
“I will share these lessons publicly to assist higher education leaders and governing board members across the nation who face similar personnel matters,” Castro said.
The CSU board of trustees hired attorney Mary Lee Wegner to conduct the external investigation in March following Castro’s resignation.
“We want to thank the Fresno State community members who came forward to share their experiences courageously and transparently,” said interim Chancellor Jolene Koester. “The independent external investigation was launched to enable the CSU and the trustees to learn from the past and to prevent such issues from occurring in the future.”
The system has also started an independent assessment of Title IX practices across all 23 campuses and within the Chancellor’s Office.
The investigation was conducted from March 25 to Aug. 10 and included interviews with some 30 current and former employees and students working on campus or in the Chancellor’s Office. Several were interviewed multiple times. Castro was questioned for 14 hours with his attorney present. Hundreds of emails, texts, articles and documents were reviewed. Wegner shared some privileged details with the board in closed sessions that she did not include in her written report.