It was August 2020, and Joseph Castro was vying to become chancellor of the nation’s largest four-year university system, the sprawling 23-campus California State University.
He had a great backstory. The grandson of Mexican immigrants, son of a single mother, and a first-generation college student, Castro was seven years into a presidency at CSU’s Fresno campus in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley where he grew up. He’d spent three decades climbing the ranks of colleges across the state.
But there was a problem: A brewing scandal back at Fresno State threatened to tarnish Castro’s reputation if it spilled into public view.
At the same time the CSU board was courting Castro, two parallel internal investigations found one of his senior Fresno State administrators responsible for sexual harassment and creating an abusive work environment. The allegations were corroborated by a dozen people, many of whom shared their own accusations of wide-ranging misconduct by the administrator, Frank Lamas, according to copies of the investigation reports obtained by USA TODAY and revealed publicly here for the first time.
Lamas had come to Fresno State in 2014 at Castro’s request to head the division of student affairs. Allegations about his behavior started rolling in his first week on the job and didn’t stop, records obtained by USA TODAY show.
Over six years, Castro, the school’s human resources department and its Title IX office received at least 12 complaints about Lamas, including that he stared at women’s breasts, touched women inappropriately, made sexist remarks and berated, belittled and retaliated against employees. Castro personally received at least seven of them. But he never formally disciplined Lamas, records show, instead praising him in annual performance reviews and endorsing him for a prestigious lifetime achievement award, which Lamas won.
It wasn’t until an employee accused Lamas of implying he would help her get promoted in exchange for sexual favors that Fresno State launched the internal investigation whose findings ultimately forced Castro’s hand. But rather than firing Lamas or asking for his resignation, Castro quietly paid him to leave.
The settlement agreement obtained by USA TODAY shows that Castro gave Lamas $260,000 and full retirement benefits. It forbade Lamas from ever working in the CSU system again but promised him a letter of recommendation should he apply at another college.
Three weeks later, the CSU board named Castro its next chancellor.
Castro now oversees all 23 CSU campuses and more than half a million students and employees. Among other things, he is responsible for ensuring the entire CSU system’s compliance with Title IX, the federal law banning sex discrimination in schools.
The landmark law, which turns 50 this year, requires schools to take “prompt and effective steps” to stop sexual harassment and prevent it from happening again. Schools also must offer to help any victims affected by it to ensure they can safely continue their education or job at the school.
“This is a lot of complaints, and they should have been treated seriously and investigated,” said Shiwali Patel, senior counsel for the National Women’s Law Center and a former attorney for the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, where she developed Title IX policies and guidance. “It isn’t something that should have been left ignored. It’s concerning and quite shocking that they let a lot go by.”
USA TODAY spent more than six months reviewing hundreds of pages of investigation files, court records, police reports, emails, meeting minutes, personnel records and other internal reports. The news organization interviewed 22 current and former Fresno State students and employees, community members and Title IX experts and filed 44 open records requests.
The investigation reveals a university president who not only took little meaningful action in response to years of sexual harassment complaints, but who publicly praised the perpetrator even after he was found at fault. When Lamas was forced from his job, Castro told staff and the public that Lamas chose to retire at the end of the year and thanked him for his years of service.
Castro initially agreed, then declined, to be interviewed for this story. In response to written questions from USA TODAY, he said he knew about most of the complaints and repeatedly spoke to Lamas about them. He also ordered Lamas to undergo a six-hour sensitivity training session in November 2016. Castro said he was unable to do more because, until 2019, none of his accusers was willing to file a formal Title IX complaint.
As for the settlement, Castro said he consulted with then-CSU Chancellor Timothy White, and they 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 Castro had tried to fire or discipline him.
“First and foremost, I apologize to anyone in the Fresno State community who was impacted by Dr. Lamas’ behavior,” Castro said in a statement. “I recognize how difficult this entire process was for the Division, especially those who were individually impacted by his actions.”
Castro said he regretted endorsing Lamas for the lifetime achievement award, not placing Lamas on a “performance improvement plan” and not mentioning any concerns in Lamas’ performance reviews. Castro also said he “should’ve been more neutral” in his announcement of Lamas’ retirement and in the letter of recommendation he wrote for Lamas as part of the settlement.
“I recognize now that my decision to praise his work on student success likely further compounded the negative experience of those in the Division,” Castro said.
In interviews with outside investigators and USA TODAY, Lamas denied all allegations of wrongdoing, saying his exemplary career ended unfairly because of people “with an obvious ax to grind.” He said he was upset that the investigation didn't draw upon any of the 13 reference letters and character testaments submitted on his behalf by people who spoke positively of him, including a 2017 letter from Castro.
“Fresno State and the California State University system conducted investigations into allegations made against me that I maintain lack legitimacy and are false,” Lamas said in an emailed statement to USA TODAY. “I believe my reputation and performance evaluations at all the institutions I have served including Fresno State speak to my character, integrity and performance over my career spanning four decades. I have never had any blemishes of any kind throughout my career but quite the opposite.”
While Castro went on to secure a job that pays $625,000 a year and placed him among the most prominent figures in higher education, Lamas left Fresno State with a clean record and moved to Venice, Florida, to start a consulting firm, Lamas Education Advisory Services.
Meanwhile, people who came forward to accuse Lamas saw their careers suffer. At least one former employee resigned rather than endure the harassment, she told USA TODAY. Another said he left the student affairs division to escape retaliation for reporting Lamas’ behavior.
“It scares me to no end to think that Joe Castro is in charge of 23 CSUs, thousands of staff, hundreds of thousands of students and hundreds of millions of dollars, and yet he couldn’t make the right decision at Fresno State,” said Terry Wilson, a former staff member who said Lamas harassed and retaliated against him. “I don’t know if he knows the difference between right and wrong. If he does, he doesn’t have the backbone to make the hard decision.”
‘The messiah’ of Fresno State
Nestled in the heart of one of the world’s richest agricultural regions, Fresno State’s main campus sits across the street from a 1,000-acre student-operated farm and vineyard.
Castro’s presidency marked the first time in the university’s century-long history that its top administrator resembled its students. Of Fresno State’s 24,000 students, half are Hispanic and almost all are from in state. Nearly two-thirds qualify for need-based federal financial aid.
He kicked off his presidency in August 2013 with the goal of boosting the school’s plateauing graduate rate. Castro viewed student affairs, which runs programs and services that support students in and outside the classroom, as key to achieving that goal. And he saw Lamas as the man to lead that division.
They met in 2012 through their student affairs work. At the time, Castro was vice chancellor of student academic affairs at the University of California, San Francisco, and Lamas ran student affairs at the University of Texas at Arlington.
An influential figure in that corner of the higher education world, Lamas had worked in student affairs for eight universities over 35 years. He served on the board of directors for the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, the top professional organization for student affairs officials at U.S. colleges.
Lamas was elected NASPA board chairman just days before Castro announced in February 2014 he’d lured the veteran administrator to Fresno State.
“I am ecstatic that Frank Lamas accepted my invitation to join our campus administration,” Castro said in a press release. “His national reputation and accomplishments at UT Arlington and his comprehensive knowledge of student development and success, and retention theory will be important assets as we seek to enhance student success at Fresno State.”
Lamas said he accepted the job as a favor to Castro, according to his later statements to investigators. He said Castro personally recruited him for the role, which he viewed as a stepping stone toward a presidency of his own.
Lamas started as vice president of student affairs and enrollment management in July 2014. He referred to himself as the “messiah” of Fresno State, one colleague later told investigators. According to the investigation reports and former employees who spoke to USA TODAY, he ordered staff members to drive him around town, deliver him food, design his family holiday cards and arrange his and his wife’s personal travel.
Lamas berated and humiliated staff members in front of others, they told investigators and USA TODAY. He used derogatory words for colleagues he didn’t like, the reports show. When hiring for new positions, several employees said, Lamas talked about choosing the most attractive applicant.
Among those who endured Lamas’ behavior was Wilson, the former student affairs analyst. According to Wilson, Lamas during his first week on campus asked him if he was gay. Wilson reported the incident to Jan Parten, Fresno State’s then-HR director and Title IX coordinator, emails he provided investigators and the news organization show.
According to Wilson, Lamas became hostile toward him the next day. He called Wilson into his office and assigned him numerous tasks with impossible deadlines, Wilson said. Lamas began yelling at him daily, calling him names, and making condescending statements about him in front of others, such as, “Is this too hard for you?”
Wilson reported at least four other incidents involving Lamas to Parten over the next three months, emails show. That August, Lamas made a disparaging remark about a pregnant woman’s body at a Jamba Juice, Wilson said. During a September meeting, Lamas pushed him in the chest with his index finger and said, “I’m the goddamn vice president of student affairs!”
Wilson said Parten spoke to Lamas about the incidents but never investigated them. Public records requests USA TODAY filed with the university for investigations involving Lamas since 2014 yielded only the outside firm’s investigation reports in 2020. Parten did not respond to multiple requests for comment from USA TODAY.
The inaction left Wilson vulnerable, as Lamas had made clear he would retaliate against anyone who complained.
According to the investigation reports, several staff members said they heard Lamas say, “If you’re going to kill the king, kill the king.” One recalled him saying he’d “bury” people who came after him, the report shows. Lamas told several staff members a story about an employee who went over his boss’s head to complain and wound up working in the janitor’s closet the next day. He bragged about his close relationship with Castro.
That September, Lamas handed Wilson a Performance Improvement Plan – a negative performance evaluation and the first step toward firing a CSU union employee. Wilson viewed it as retaliation and told his union representative and Parten he wanted to transfer. But Lamas needed to approve Wilson’s transfer, and according to Wilson, he refused. Lamas told him he did not like him and wanted him fired.
CSU’s own policy protects whistleblowers from retaliation. It’s also a protection afforded under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Fresno State should have investigated Wilson’s retaliation claims under Title VII instead of ignoring them, said Patel, the attorney. It also could have investigated under Title IX, she said, because one of Wilson’s complaints involved his sexual orientation.
Castro told USA TODAY he had been unaware of Wilson’s complaints. He said Parten never shared them with members of senior leadership.
“It’s hard to speculate as to what additional action might have been taken had these been known,” Castro said. “That notwithstanding, I am sorry that I didn’t know about the challenges that he faced when he worked for Dr. Lamas. It should never have happened.”
With his transfer request an apparent dead end, Wilson applied for a job opening in accounting services at the advice of his union representative, he said. The school made him apply and go through the interview process again, he said. He started the new job in January 2015, records show.
Wilson, who had worked at Fresno State for seven years, aspired to be an associate vice president. But he viewed the accounting job as a step down.
“They wrecked my career at Fresno State,” he said.
Wilson said he blames Castro for failing to protect him while advancing his own career.
“He’s lied, he’s covered up investigations, all for his benefit to be the chancellor of the CSU,” said Wilson, who is now vice president of finance for the CSU Employee Union. “He can put up whatever façade, but he knew about all these things that were happening on his campus.”
Allegations mount, Lamas gets a window
By the end of 2016, Castro had firsthand knowledge of a wealth of information calling Lamas’ character into question.
The Title IX office received multiple complaints about Lamas’ behavior toward women, investigation reports show. An anonymous complaint alleged he referred to a female colleague’s high heels as “hooker shoes” and said, “Your husband thinks that’s sexy.” Another from October 2015 accused Lamas of leering at the breasts of a female student who worked part time in the financial aid department – one of 50 departments Lamas supervised.
That incident happened in a conference room in the student affairs office, the student, Jennifer Cushing, told USA TODAY. According to Cushing, Lamas sat next to her, leaned his head over her and looked directly down her shirt. Several colleagues witnessed it, she said, and some spoke to her about it afterward. She became visibly upset.
It wasn’t the first time Lamas had made Cushing uncomfortable, she said. He often stopped to chat with her in the hallways or stairwell, but he stood too close, invading her personal space. One time he peppered her with questions about her “boyfriend,” she said. She didn’t have one. Cushing said she soon noticed that almost every time they spoke, Lamas, who stood about a foot taller than her, stared at her breasts.
“Most people were aware that Frank Lamas was creeping on students,” Cushing told USA TODAY. “Any time I’d have a conversation with him, he never looked me in the face. I don’t think he ever made eye contact with me.”
Wilson, who knew Cushing, said he heard about the conference-room incident and notified Debbie Adishian-Astone, Fresno State’s vice president of administration and chief financial officer. Another person reported it directly to Castro, emails obtained by USA TODAY show.
“HR will follow up with the student on my behalf,” Castro wrote in an October 28, 2015, email acknowledging the complaint.
Parten sent Cushing a letter informing her of her right to file a formal Title IX complaint. Fearing retaliation, Cushing declined. She said she did not want to risk doing something that could put her scholarship and financial aid in jeopardy.
“It could have literally affected me for the rest of my life,” Cushing said. “It was trade my quality of life for almost nothing happening to him. I doubt he would have faced any real punishment, because they never do.”
It’s not clear if Castro or Parten spoke to Lamas about the incident. Parten’s October 2015 letter to Cushing said she “may have a ‘general’ conversation with (Lamas) about our commitment to a harassment-free learning/work environment.” Parten left Fresno State at the end of that year.
The following spring, Castro hired a Bay Area diversity-consulting firm to conduct an assessment of the student affairs division, in response to concerns raised about its “climate,” records show. The firm, K. Iwata Associates, Inc., randomly selected and interviewed 18 student affairs staff members and student workers about their experiences in the department generally and with Lamas specifically.
The results were damning. Several participants said Lamas made “sexist comments to and about women,” the firm’s June 2016 five-page report shows. Ten of the 18 reported experiencing a sense of harassment or hostile work environment, the report shows. According to Lamas’ later statements to investigators, one employee claimed to have heard him say to a woman, “Hey baby, you’re looking sexy today.”
The allegations of sexist comments prompted the university’s new interim Title IX coordinator, Erin Boele, to investigate, she later told outside investigators. But when Lamas found out that July, Boele said, he became “frustrated and not happy” and tried to remove her from all her committee assignments, the investigation report shows.
Boele believed Lamas’ actions were retaliatory, she later told investigators. She said she immediately reported the matter to Castro and her boss, Adishian-Astone.
Both told USA TODAY they found Lamas’ actions “unacceptable” and said they resolved the issue by speaking to him directly.
“Dr. Lamas was immediately counseled by me, as well as Debbie, that his actions were inappropriate and that he needed to immediately reinstate her, which he did,” Castro said.
Despite the intervention, Boele ultimately dropped her investigation into Lamas.
By this point, the university was clearly aware of a pattern of concerning behavior involving Lamas and should have investigated, Patel said. It also should have investigated Boele’s complaint to Adishian-Astone, Patel said. In addition to Title VII and university policies, Title IX prohibits retaliation, Patel said, including “against a Title IX coordinator who is responding to a complaint of sexual harassment under their official duties.”
No retaliation investigation was conducted, Adishian-Astone said, because Boele declined to file a formal complaint. Lamas was never disciplined.
Instead, Castro signed him up for a six-hour, one-on-one sensitivity training program designed for business executives, records show. Deena Pargman, the consultant who led the November 2016 training, gave Lamas high marks for his engagement, according to her written summary of the session obtained by USA TODAY.
“Frank came to the meeting ready to learn and share his experiences,” Pargman wrote. “He actively applied the information we discussed to his own life and career and took full advantage of the opportunity to pause, learn and reflect… He was a pleasure to work with and we both learned as he shared stories of his workplace experiences.”
Back at campus, however, Lamas continued to deny any wrongdoing. According to his later statements to investigators, the school installed a window on the door to his office suite around the same time as the training, so that others could see in. Lamas told others the window was his idea, investigation reports show – to protect himself from false accusations.
‘Don’t touch me’
It would be three more years before the university finally investigated Lamas.
In October 2019, a member of Lamas’ staff who was also enrolled full time as a doctoral student filed a formal Title IX complaint against him, alleging he’d sexually harassed her for nearly a year.
It is USA TODAY’s policy not to publish the names of people who allege sexual harassment without their permission.
In an interview, the woman told USA TODAY she loved her job and was good at it. But about two years in, Lamas became enamored with her, she said, which caused her to dread coming to work.
Lamas called her the face of the office, she said, and told her he hired her because she was pretty. He stared at her breasts, she said, and once slipped her a handful of condoms from the health center, which he called the “sex shop.” He showed her photos of his sons wearing swimsuits and asked her if they were “hot” and if she wanted to date them. She was married.
Lamas repeatedly touched her without consent, she said. He placed his hand on her lower back whenever he passed her in the hall or at an event. She told him numerous times she did not like to be touched, she said, but he laughed it off. He placed his arms around her, rubbed her arm, and adjusted her bra strap when it slipped out of her sleeveless blouse.
Although a window had been installed in his office door years earlier, Lamas closed the door and blinds on several occasions when he called the woman in to meet, she said. She told him to leave them open, but he turned it into a game, she said, in which he’d close them anyway and make her reopen them.
The woman said she believed if she filed a complaint, Lamas would retaliate against not only her, but also her co-workers, who would be called as witnesses. She contemplated resigning.
At the same time, she said, Lamas had been helping her get promoted. After he learned she’d applied for a job in a different department, he offered a director-level position within student affairs in hopes she’d stay. He even told her supervisor to write the job description, which made her think he was serious.
That changed the afternoon of Oct. 3, 2019, as the university was set to celebrate the grand opening of its new outdoor fitness court – a project championed by the health center, which Lamas oversaw. Lamas offered the woman a ride to the court in his car.
During the roughly 4-minute drive, Lamas told the woman that, while it may be difficult to hear, she wasn’t qualified for the director position. The woman was shocked, she said. Then, Lamas placed his hand on her knee and began moving it up her thigh, toward her groin.
“Don’t touch me,” she told Lamas as she pulled her legs away. Lamas, she said, laughed. He told her she was too young for the job and probably wouldn’t get it but should apply anyway.
The woman “shut down,” she said. She told USA TODAY she believed Lamas was holding up her promotion in exchange for sexual favors.
Three weeks later, the woman submitted her resignation, saying it was for personal reasons. The truth, she said, is she could no longer tolerate his abuse. She did not want to stay even if he left.
Lamas emailed her the next morning, wishing her well. But just hours later, the woman said, her supervisor informed her that Lamas had called saying he’d received an unspecified complaint about her job performance. The woman filed a Title IX complaint later that night, fearing Lamas was trying to discredit her.
Her complaint triggered Fresno State’s formal Title IX grievance procedures, forcing it to investigate. Castro placed Lamas on paid leave, and the school hired Mary Lee Wegner, a Los Angeles-area employment lawyer, to conduct the investigation.
Wegner interviewed 26 current and former employees over four months, according to her investigation reports. Thirteen said they’d witnessed Lamas make sexist comments, touch women inappropriately or close his office window blinds while alone with them, the reports show. Three women said they’d caught Lamas staring at their breasts, and three others said they knew colleagues who’d made the same allegation.
Despite his firsthand knowledge of numerous complaints, Castro was not among those interviewed, the reports show.
Wegner completed two investigation reports on April 7, 2020 – one finding Lamas responsible for sexually harassing the woman, and the other for engaging in “abusive workplace behavior,” creating a “culture of fear” and other inappropriate conduct.
She deemed Lamas’ blanket denials of all wrongdoing not credible and, in some instances, easy to disprove. Lamas, she noted, continued to insist he was the true victim in the situation – framed by disgruntled employees whose work he’d criticized.
“In light of (Lamas)’s awareness that his behavior with women had been the subject of past scrutiny, his definitive assertion he knows what is and isn’t appropriate workplace behavior, and the particular power he wields in his position (and arguably as the President’s friend and colleague), one would expect he would take extra care to avoid even the appearance of impropriety,” Wegner wrote in one investigation report.
“Regardless of whether (Lamas) simply ignored, forgot or intentionally violated the reasonable and easily sustainable boundaries (the woman) set, whether he thought his actions were taken in jest, or whether he lacks a fundamental awareness or understanding of how his actions as a senior manager are perceived by others, the result is the same.”
Castro signs settlement, gets promoted
Lamas appealed Wegner’s findings to the CSU chancellor’s office, which upheld them. Despite the confirmed findings, Castro declined to discipline Lamas.
A settlement, Castro told USA TODAY, was the best way to ensure Lamas left permanently.
On Aug. 31, 2020, Castro and Fresno State attorney Darryl Hamm finalized a settlement agreement with Lamas that paid him a full year’s salary – $260,000 – to retire on Dec. 31, 2020, and never again seek employment within the CSU system.
Although the deal forbade him from working for any CSU campus, it ensured Fresno State would help Lamas find work elsewhere. Any future reference requests, the agreement says, will be directed to the Fresno State president’s office, which will “provide a letter of reference from President Castro to facilitate the Employee’s efforts to pursue future opportunities.”
The settlement ensured the university would not face a lawsuit from Lamas, who continued to contest the findings and claimed Wegner’s investigation was “biased” and “violated his due process rights,” the agreement shows.
In addition to the settlement money, the December retirement date gave Lamas an extra four months’ salary. In total, Lamas collected more than $300,000 over 14 months on paid leave, during which he never set foot on campus, Adishian-Astone said.
Throughout the investigation, Castro repeatedly misled staff about the reasons for Lamas’ absence, according to emails obtained by USA TODAY.
Castro claimed Lamas informed him he needed to take leave, the emails show – instead of the other way around. In December 2019, Castro emailed staff saying Lamas “has advised me that his leave will need to be extended” to late February. When that deadline came, Castro said Lamas “will be working remotely on special projects” through May. Castro extended that deadline twice more, emails show.
“It is common to keep communications somewhat neutral while investigations are ongoing,” Adishian-Astone told USA TODAY, “to preserve the impartiality.”
Castro penned his last Lamas update the same day as the settlement, emails show. Lamas “has decided to retire from Fresno State” at the end of the year and “will continue to work remotely on special assignments” until then, Castro wrote in an email to staff.
“During his service as vice president, Fresno State’s commitment to student success has been significantly strengthened,” Castro wrote in a separate campus-wide email. “His efforts have contributed to a marked increase in graduation rates and decreased gaps in achievement between underrepresented and other students. We are making steady progress toward our campus’ ambitious Graduation Initiative 2025 goals, in part, because of student-centered initiatives championed by Dr. Lamas.”
The woman at the center of the investigation said she had been unaware of the settlement until USA TODAY brought it to her attention.
“I’m outraged,” she said. “I felt like even to get my next new job, I had to continue to play Fresno State’s game to make sure I could get positive references. I really felt like I still had to protect my reputation. And he just got to walk away with not only a letter of reference and his reputation protected, but also financially set.”
The CSU board had been unaware of the investigation and settlement during the chancellor search, board chair Lillian Kimbell said in response to questions from USA TODAY. It would not be customary to share such matters with the board, she said, nor would the board need to know. She said she believed Castro and White, the former chancellor, handled it appropriately.
Kimbell officially named Castro chancellor on September 21, 2020, his appointment letter shows.
“While we acted in accordance with applicable CSU policies, as well as State and Federal Law, in hindsight there are some things I wish I had handled differently,” Castro said in a statement to USA TODAY. “Given the nature of the anonymous concerns and informal complaints, a documented PIP should have been developed and placed in Dr. Lamas’ personnel file and his performance evaluations should have reflected these same concerns. As well, I should’ve been more neutral in both my reference letter and the announcement of Dr. Lamas’ departure.”
The woman believes Castro and Fresno State covered up the Lamas investigation so as not to “muddy the glory of Castro becoming chancellor,” she said. His unwillingness to hold Lamas accountable in the face of a mountain of evidence, she said, made her nervous for the 485,000 students and 56,000 employees across the CSU system now in Castro’s care.
“I had so much respect for him when I worked there, until this whole thing,” she told USA TODAY. “He puts on a really great, warm, empathetic face, like a leader who listens, and he is adored by the Fresno community and a lot of California in general.
“I think I was just still holding on to some sort of hope that he had a solid moral compass,” she said. “Now my suspicions about him are confirmed.”
Kenny Jacoby is a reporter for USA TODAY 's investigations team who covers universities, sports, policing and sexual violence. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter on @kennyjacoby.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Cal State chancellor Joseph Castro mishandled sexual harassment claims