After spotlight on sexual misconduct at CSUs, Valley campuses try to meet accountability
FRESNO, Calif. – In mid-July, a new webpage appeared under the CSU’s website for Title IX. It was titled “The CSU’s Commitment to Change.”
After the CSU chancellor’s public resignation last year over accusations of mishandling sexual harassment complaints, the Cozen O’Connor law firm was brought in to assess every Title IX office in the CSU.
Title IX is federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in any educational institution that receives federal funding. The Cozen team collected responses from staff, faculty, and students. The reports showed an assessment of Title IX and "DHR," or discrimination, harassment, and retaliation.
Sexual misconduct is a problem on college campuses. And the spotlight left CSU campuses with a responsibility to address it. Bringing in the Cozen team was an effort to assess how every campus – including those in the San Joaquin Valley – responds to the problem.
The reports sought to provide recommendations for each campus, ranging from providing more documentation to improving online training.
“Every student, every member of the community had an opportunity to engage,” says Leora Friedman, the Vice Chancellor for human resources at the CSU.
Bernadette Muscat, the dean of undergraduate studies and the former chair of the Title IX task force at California State University at Fresno, says many in the community were surprised when accusations of sexual harassment complaint mishandling were levied against Chancellor Joseph Castro during his time as university president in Fresno.
“Chancellor Castro was somebody who individuals really look to as sort of somebody from the Valley… there was a kinship,” Muscat says.
After more than a year from stepping down as chancellor, Castro, in a statement to KVPR, said the Cozen report’s recommendations are “generally appropriate given the CSU’s now well-documented long-standing systemic problems with Title IX sexual harassment related matters.”
Castro added, “If faithfully implemented by the CSU, the recommendations will hopefully lead to a more consistently supportive environment for all women and men across the system.”
Campuses see growing responsibility
Over the course of a year, the Cozen team conducted focus sessions and campuses distributed surveys to staff and students.
Paul Norris, the executive director of equity programs and compliance for California State University at Stanislaus says the university built awareness about the survey early on, and advertised it through various platforms.
Stanislaus State had the highest percentage of student responses to the survey – at 12% – and ranked No. 2 for the mere number of survey responses, only beaten by CSU Northridge, which has almost four times the student population size.
“[Stanislaus State] is a highly relational campus and we have each other's backs here whether it's students, faculty or staff, we're looking out for each other,” Norris says.
Survey summaries in the Cozen reports for Stanislaus State and CSU Bakersfield say students “feel safe on campus” or perceive the campus as “safer” than others in the CSU system.
“We're a smaller campus,” Marcus Brown, the director of equity, inclusion, and compliance at Bakersfield says. “I think we're generally safer, just by nature of how we engage as a community.”
Brown says the university’s size gives it an advantage to reducing the feeling of danger.
At Fresno State, a much larger campus than Stanislaus and Bakersfield, Muscat says they are trying to combat those safety concerns.
“It's really a matter of raising the awareness of these kinds of programs on our campus,” Muscat says.
While Brown calls himself a “solo practitioner” in the Title IX office, Muscat says she, on the other hand, “wears many hats.” She also serves as interim dean for the library along with her other two positions.
Muscat says Fresno State has moved the location of its Title IX office from the fourth floor of the library to one of the student unions.
“It's [a] less intimidating place,” Muscat says. “Anybody could be there for any reason.”
Fresno also hired more Title IX staff: something all CSU campuses were recommended to do.
Efficiency, more staff a priority
Brown, from Bakersfield, says the CSU approved the use of outside investigators which have helped as student engagement with the Title IX office has grown.
However, he says he would like to create greater efficiency in the future when students engage with Title IX – which could look like what Stanislaus State did: creating a designated department.
“We put what we call the ‘bread and butter’ compliance programs in there, so that they could be administered and coordinated by me,” Norris, from Stanislaus State, says.
The one-in-all department in Stanislaus was created six months prior to the Cozen assessment – and it seemed to impress the firm.
The Cozen firm highlighted an insufficient number of Title IX staff across the CSU system. Following the report, the Fresno and Stanislaus campuses have hired more staff, and Bakersfield is moving in that direction.
For other campuses trying to catch up, the Cozen report gives a little push. Brown, from CSU Bakersfield, is using that to his advantage.
“Very rarely are we in situations where we have such a comprehensive assessment that we can look at ourselves so comprehensively,” Brown says. “It's all an opportunity for me to share the information as an advocacy piece for what we need to do to improve and expand what we're doing.”
The CSU says it still has work to do to address sexual misconduct on campuses. It, too, plans to hire more staff in the chancellor’s office, but says resources remain limited for now.