Investigation Finds Former Cal State Chancellor Had a ‘Blind Spot’ for an Abusive Colleague

As president of California State University at Fresno, Joseph I. Castro failed to rigorously address complaints that a vice president he had personally recruited was sexually harassing, bullying, and retaliating against people who worked under him, according to an investigative report released on Thursday by a Los Angeles employment lawyer, Mary Lee Wegner.

The report, commissioned by the California State University Board of Trustees, is the first of three that will investigate how complaints about sexual misconduct have been handled across the 23-campus system. This one focuses squarely on the Fresno campus, and how its former president, who went on to become the system’s chancellor, responded to complaints about a close colleague and subordinate.

From 2014 to 2019, the campus received nine complaints about Frank Lamas, Fresno’s vice president for student affairs, the report says. The first formal Title IX complaint came in 2019, when one of Lamas’s employees accused him of touching her inappropriately and implying that she’d get a promotion in exchange for sexual favors. Fresno acted on each complaint, but the responses weren’t always effective, and the alleged abuses continued, the report says.

“Campus administrators responsible for responding to reports [of harassment] had good intentions, although their lack of experience and/or heavy workloads in some instances, along with poor documentation, lack of information, and other factors, resulted in less aggressive and effective responses to reports until the October 2019 complaint,” Wegner wrote in her report.

“In particular, the president’s failure to more rigorously address reports of Lamas’s alleged misconduct as they surfaced was a notable factor that negatively impacted the effectiveness of the campus’s responses to such reports,” she added. Instead of taking significant steps to rein Lamas in, Castro “supported Lamas throughout his employment even in the face of multiple allegations, growing evidence, and, ultimately, confirmed findings of Lamas’s alleged misconduct,” the report says.

Castro “supported Lamas throughout his employment even in the face of multiple allegations, growing evidence, and, ultimately, confirmed findings of Lamas’s alleged misconduct.

By mid-2016, the report says, Castro knew Lamas had been repeatedly accused of inappropriate behavior, but he just counseled him orally, persuaded him to attend workplace training, and had windows installed in Lamas’s office and division. From 2016 to 2019, Castro recommended Lamas at least eight times for presidential positions in the Cal State system and elsewhere.

In a written statement to The Chronicle, Castro said his decisions on Title IX matters had been guided by campus and university-system policies and protocols, along with the direction of the then chancellor, Timothy P. White, and the general counsel, Andrew Jones. White did not immediately respond to a request for comment, and a Cal State spokesperson said the interim chancellor would be speaking for the system.

The interim chancellor, Jolene Koester, issued a statement on Thursday saying the report would help Cal State “learn from the past” and “prevent such issues from occurring in the future.”

Castro said he also had relied on advice from campus lawyers and policy experts at Cal State-Fresno and in the chancellor’s office. “I have served for over 32 years in both the University of California and California State University systems, and I earned a reputation for my dedication to the success of students, faculty, and staff,” he wrote, adding that he disagreed with some aspects of the report.

The report “leaves out any reference to the advice I received from campus or system counsel. They were involved in helping me figure out how to deal with this matter from beginning to end.”

In an interview with The Chronicle shortly after the report’s release, Castro said he was disappointed that it “leaves out any reference to the advice I received from campus or system counsel.”

“They were involved in helping me figure out how to deal with this matter from beginning to end,” he said.

The report also doesn’t mention the many cases across the system in which administrators accused of misconduct were allowed to retreat to faculty positions, he said. The problems in Title IX enforcement, he said, are systemic in nature, and he had hoped to remain as chancellor to help address them. Instead, he said, he was pressured to resign, before an investigation could take place.

Two policy reforms he proposed on his last day as chancellor were to ban any administrator who violates a Title IX policy from retreating to a faculty position, Castro said. He also wanted to prohibit letters of reference for any employee who violates a Title IX policy. Both reforms were approved, but too late, he said, to help him avoid some of the most contentious aspects of the settlement with Lamas.

A Question of Discipline

Castro was named chancellor of the California State University system, the nation’s largest system of public four-year universities, in September 2020. After just over a year in the job, he resigned under pressure in February, during a contentious, 10-hour Board of Trustees meeting called to discuss Castro’s handling of sexual-harassment and bullying complaints against Lamas.

At the time, Castro was accused of going easy on his former vice president despite knowing about at least seven complaints in the six years leading up to Lamas’s departure. Those complaints, which included allegations that Lamas stared at women’s breasts, touched women inappropriately, made sexist remarks, and berated and retaliated against employees, came to light publicly, in an investigation published by USA Today in February.

In 2020, Lamas was found responsible for sexually harassing an employee and creating an abusive work environment. But instead of being formally disciplined or fired, he was paid to leave quietly. Under a settlement signed with Castro, Lamas received a $260,000 payout, retirement benefits, and the promise of a job recommendation. Lamas had only to agree that he’d never again work for a Cal State campus, but with a record that included no public acknowledgment of wrongdoing, he was free to move elsewhere.

Lamas has denied wrongdoing and said he consistently received positive reviews from Castro. He accused investigators of ignoring those reviews, as well as supportive comments from colleagues.

The report concludes that the $260,000 settlement, which White approved, was justified, given the threat of litigation, the value of Lamas’s faculty “retreat” rights, and the benefits of having him gone.

Wegner’s report concludes that Castro should have acted sooner, and more forcefully, to discipline Lamas. Instead, he continued to support him. That continued after the settlement, “to the extent he provided a very positive retirement announcement and recommendation letter for Lamas that were inappropriate given the circumstances,” the report says. “In short, the evidence reviewed reflects a blind spot the president had about Lamas that negatively influenced his response to Lamas’s behavior and execution of portions of the settlement.”

Castro said the letter of recommendation was stipulated in the settlement agreement negotiated by the university’s lawyers and signed by White, the then chancellor. He also said he hadn’t treated Lamas any differently than any other close colleague.

Castro has said that, until someone filed a formal complaint, in 2019, his hands were tied.

Title IX experts have disputed that claim, saying that, even in the absence of a complaint, colleges and universities can interview colleagues and students to find out whether they’re aware of reported behavior.

It’s not surprising that formal complaints weren’t filed, the report says. “First and foremost, employees did not report Lamas’s alleged misconduct (or if they did, refused to file complaints that required use of their names) because they feared retaliation,” the report notes. “Lamas’s intimidating demeanor and comments about what happens to people when they complain about their bosses, along with the narrative he created about being good friends with the president, created a culture of fear that silenced employees.”

In media reports, Castro has said that he regrets nominating Lamas for a lifetime achievement award, in 2017, as well as the presidency of another Cal State campus, in 2018. He also has said he wishes he had included information about the informal complaints he’d learned of in Lamas’s performance evaluations.

Three weeks after the settlement with Lamas, Castro was named chancellor of the Cal State system. Board members said he hadn’t mentioned the deal with Lamas when he was being considered for the job.

After his forced resignation, Castro received nearly $450,000 in a settlement that included a one-year stint as an adviser to the system’s board. After February 2023, under an agreement signed when he became chancellor, he’ll have the option to become a tenured professor of leadership and public policy at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, one of the system’s campuses. He said on Thursday that he’d notified the campus that he looked forward to teaching there.

Castro’s resignation shocked and disappointed those who saw him as a champion for Hispanic and other underrepresented students in higher education. He began his academic career as a first-generation college student.

The report released on Thursday is based on one of three planned investigations. The chancellor’s office hired a law firm to conduct a systemwide assessment of how all Cal State campuses, as well as the chancellor’s office, handle Title IX cases. The review isn’t expected to be finished before the first quarter of next year. California lawmakers also called for the state auditor to conduct a review. It’s expected sometime next year.

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