Cal State sexual harassment cases would face scrutiny by legislature under new bill
California State University's handling of sexual misconduct complaints would be subject to increased oversight and guardrails under a new bill filed by a state senator last month.
SB 808, introduced by Democratic state Sen. Bill Dodd, would require campus presidents and vice presidents or vice chancellors to sign off on settlement agreements in sexual harassment cases. CSU also would have to report to the Legislature the outcomes of sexual harassment complaints received by each of the 23 campuses and the chancellor’s office and the lengths of any investigations.
It also would forbid a practice that enabled CSU administrators to “retreat” to faculty jobs after being disciplined for sexual harassment – a practice the CSU Board of Trustees banned in response to reporting by USA TODAY last year.
The bill calls CSU's handling of sexual harassment and violence complaints "woefully inadequate."
“We seem to have a systemic problem throughout the CSU system,” Dodd told USA TODAY. “Accountability starts at the top, and this bill would ensure that college presidents and senior administrators don't escape it.”
Dodd filed the bill on Feb. 17 – exactly one year after then-CSU Chancellor Joseph Castro resigned from the top job in the nation’s largest public university system amid widespread outcry from students, faculty, staff and lawmakers. The pressure had begun building two weeks earlier, when a USA TODAY investigation revealed he mishandled of a dozen sexual harassment, bullying and retaliation complaints against a top administrator when Castro was president of CSU's Fresno campus.
A fact sheet accompanying Dodd's bill credits USA TODAY's investigation for exposing the problems, as well as reporting on sexual harassment at other CSU campuses by other news outlets in the fallout of the scandal. Such incidents, the bill says, "indicate a clear lack of safeguards, sufficient policies, professional oversight, and accountability in the California State University system,” which enrolls nearly half a million students.
CSU is reviewing the bill, said spokesperson Mike Uhlenkamp, who added that many of the issues it would address “have already been addressed by new or revised CSU policy,” including restrictions on retreat rights. The CSU also hired an outside firm, Cozen O'Connor, to conduct a comprehensive review of Title IX practices at all 23 campuses and is preparing to adopt recommendations in the coming months, Uhlenkamp said.
USA TODAY's investigation found Castro repeatedly declined to discipline vice president of student affairs Frank Lamas despite being aware of at least seven of the complaints against him. Instead, he praised Lamas publicly, wrote glowing performance evaluations and endorsed him for a prestigious lifetime achievement award and presidencies at other universities.
Fresno State launched a Title IX investigation into Lamas in November 2019 after a doctoral student who worked for him filed a formal complaint saying he repeatedly touched her against her wishes, made inappropriate sexual comments and implied he'd help her get a promotion in exchange for sexual favors.
An outside law firm the school hired to investigate found Lamas responsible for sexually harassing her, engaging in “abusive workplace behavior” and creating a “culture of fear,” records show.
Rather than fire Lamas, Castro chose to quietly settle the matter without disciplinary action, USA TODAY's investigation found. Castro authorized a $260,000 payment from the school to Lamas and allowed him to retire with a clean record, an August 2020 settlement agreement obtained by the news organization shows. Although the settlement banned Lamas from working at CSU again, Castro agreed to write him a letter of recommendation to help him find work elsewhere.
Three weeks after signing the settlement, the CSU board named Castro chancellor, a position he held from January 2021 until his resignation in February 2022.
In addition to Castro’s departure, the news organization's reporting prompted outside investigations, a legislative audit and numerous reforms. A Fresno State student and employee also sued CSU, Castro and Lamas in December, accusing the school of mishandling their sexual assault and harassment complaints.
Among the reforms, the CSU board adopted a policy that voids administrators’ "retreat rights" if they are disciplined for serious misconduct. USA TODAY’s investigation found CSU administrators, including Lamas and a Cal Poly Humboldt dean, had used these contractual clauses to escape termination and other consequences after being found responsible for sexual harassment.
The bill would give CSU retreat right reforms the force of law.
It is urgently needed "to expose CSU leaders and end a university culture of sweeping allegations of egregious violations under the rug," said Catherine Hutchinson, president of the CSU Employees Union, which co-sponsored it along with the California Faculty Association.
“The collective CSU leadership, including the chancellor, campus presidents, and campus provosts, has a very long way to go to earn the trust of students, staff and faculty, given the history of documented sexual harassment cases committed by top administrators who face no real consequences,” Hutchinson said in an emailed statement. “We support SB 808 which aims to bring transparency, accountability, and oversight of Title IX complaints and violations.”
Kenny Jacoby is an investigative reporter for USA TODAY covering Title IX and campus sexual misconduct. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @kennyjacoby.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Cal State sexual harassment cases would face scrutiny under new bill