In criticizing the California State University for its handing of sexual harassment cases, the law firm Cozen O’Connor stressed in a report the need for the system and its campus leaders to rebuild trust with students, faculty and staff.
But leaders of four major unions representing CSU employees and state legislators are questioning whether that’s possible without major changes at the administrative level and greater oversight, particularly at Fresno State where a sexual harassment scandal led to the resignation of former CSU chancellor Joseph I. Castro.
“We saw what happened at Fresno State where top administrators, including the president, turned a blind eye when faced with evidence of multiple workplace abuses against students and staff,” said Catherine Hutchinson, president of the California State University Employees Union, in a statement to The Bee.
“We have serious reservations that the same administrators who worked under former Chancellor Castro, a failed leader who exited in disgrace, are now entrusted to implement changes recommended in the Cozen report. It is critical for union staff members to have a seat at the table and be heard if campuses are serious about increasing transparency and accountability.”
The report by Cozen O’Connor – which was hired by the CSU board of trustees to assess the system’s past responses to Title IX and discrimination, harassment and retaliation claims – found the 23 campuses lacked the infrastructure to carry out compliance responsibilities.
The report also found that there was a significant need for accountability for campuses in carrying out those responsibilities and for any individuals violating its policies, as well as a rampant lack of trust across its campuses.
Title IX is the federal civil rights law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in schools that receive funding from the federal government.
“Distrust is the most common concern we heard across all constituents, including distrust of the Chancellor’s Office, distrust of senior leadership, and distrust of other university constituent groups,” the Cozen O’Connor report says.
There is a lot at stake for the CSU, the largest public university system in the nation, and Fresno State as leadership absorbs the suggested reforms and mulls how to implement changes to how Title IX and DHR complaints are handled on its campuses. It’s a black eye for the CSU at a time the system is facing a decline in enrollment, a backlog of $6.5 billion in deferred maintenance projects to classrooms and buildings on campuses and a $1.5 million operational funding deficit that has impacted staffing and academic services.
State legislators to drive change in CSU system?
As the CSU and Fresno State seek to improve their image and move past several high-profile scandals, state legislators who grilled top CSU executives at an oversight hearing last month are looking for substantive change.
In 2014, a report from the California State Auditor on sexual harassment at four campuses (two in the CSU, two in the University of California system) found similar issues: University employees who are likely to be the first point of contact for victims are not sufficiently trained to respond to and report incidents, and universities did not always comply with state law for distribution of relevant policies.
Nearly a decade later, little has changed.
“Many Title IX coordinators have no experience with Title IX or violence prevention, or are housed in positions or departments that have other unrelated responsibilities,” Diane Blair, a communications professor at Fresno State and California Faculty Association secretary, said in a statement to The Bee. “It can take months to years to resolve a complaint, for those few that get resolved.
“CFA (union) members and students report instances where survivors are discouraged by campus bureaucrats and Title IX staff from filing official complaints. Even the idea of complying with Title IX and protecting students, faculty, and staff is spoken of in dismissive terms and protecting people and the university from bad press is prioritized.”
At the Aug. 31 hearing in Sacramento, legislators were stern and to the point.
“Just like I tell my kids: I don’t want excuses. I want to see change,” assemblymember Liz Ortega (D- San Leandro) said. “I’m looking forward to that and actually taking on that challenge.
“Earlier I heard one of you mention, ‘Yeah, the Legislature needs to do something.’ We absolutely need to do something, because it’s clear executives at the CSU cannot do it themselves.” ‘
‘Safeguards and policies’
The CSU declined comment on behalf of incoming chancellor Mildred Garcia, who starts her new job in October. But CSU vice chancellor for human resources Leora Freedman, responding to a question whether university administrators are best suited to handle sexual harassment allegations on their campuses, expressed the need to build safeguards and processes to eliminate any confusion of what is expected from university administrators.
“The policy is clear, but we have to do a better job of making sure that every employee, no matter their role or position at the university, understands their responsibility to report and to ensure that our processes are administered consistently and fairly,” Freedman said.
“We must address these principles and expectations frequently — not just during on-boarding, but in training, meetings and other engagements with leaders, administrators and other employees throughout the CSU.”
Safeguards and policies have been in place through executive orders including 1096, the latest iteration of a systemwide policy prohibiting discrimination, harassment, retaliation and sexual misconduct that has been around since 1981. It has been revised several times, but it is not ambiguous.
With exceptions for physicians, sexual assault and domestic violence counselors and union representatives under certain circumstances, it states: “Any employee who knows or has reason to know of incidents that may violate this Nondiscrimination Policy has a duty to promptly report to the Title IX coordinator/Discrimination, Harassment, Retaliation (DHR) Administrator, who are the campus officials designated to receive these reports.
“These employees are known as responsible employees and are required to disclose all information available, including the names of parties involved, even where the person has requested anonymity.”
At Fresno State, a campus Title IX task force that was established by President Saúl Jiménez-Sandoval to assess the handling of sexual and gender-based harassment on campus also recommended that an outside consultant be brought in.
Fresno State makes progress, but is it enough?
The task force expressed concerns that anyone already on campus might “have difficulty with engendering the trust and buy-in” that will be needed to make substantive changes.
Jiménez-Sandoval and the university have taken steps to address Title IX and DHR deficiencies, combining the two departments into one centralized office, hiring an intake/program analyst, an employee relations specialist in faculty affairs and a deputy Title IX coordinator. It also is in the process of hiring an associate vice president for compliance.
Yet, the committee charged with implementing recommendations by Cozen O’Connor still is co-led by vice president of administration Debbie Adishian-Astone, who oversees the university’s human resources, Title IX and DHR departments.
Adisihian-Astone was aware of eight complaints made from 2014 to 2019 against former vice president Frank Lamas before a ninth report, this one alleging sexual harassment and bullying, led to a campus Title IX investigation, according to a report from an attorney hired by the CSU board of trustees last year to investigate the university’s handling of those allegations.
Five of those reports involved allegations that, if true and depending on the circumstances, could have been violations of the CSU’s executive order 1096.
Castro was the president at Fresno State at the time, and his handling of that case ultimately led to his resignation as CSU chancellor in February 2022.
There also are three pending lawsuits with the CSU board of trustees listed among the defendants from a Fresno State employee, a former employee, and a former student that include allegations of procedural missteps and a lack of investigations.
Adishian-Astone, who last month interviewed for a position at UNLV, did not respond to a request for comment for this article made through the university’s communications department.
‘This is going on everywhere’
Fresno State is by no means an outlier in the CSU system, with Title IX or discrimination, harassment and retaliation scandals at San Jose State, Cal State Fullerton, Sonoma State, and Cal State San Bernardino.
“One of my colleagues at San Francisco State filed a lawsuit ( Aug. 1) against the university because for a long time they were telling them their supervisor was a racist and for two years they dragged their feet until finally this person was forced to resign,” said Dagobeto Argueta, president of the Academic Professionals of California union, which represents academic support employees.
“My colleague had been going to them for a long time and was going through the proper channels, and it took them two years. This is going on everywhere.”
Cozen O’Connor produced reports on all 23 campuses in the CSU, each one including a similar theme around a lack of trust on campus. Among the findings:
Fresno State: Many survey respondents expressed distrust that their complaints would be resolved fairly and without bias toward those with more power or influence.
Cal State Bakersfield: Many survey respondents stated that there are significant numbers of complaints that the university had never responded to.
Chico State: Survey respondents wrote that they did not trust EODR (Equal Opportunity and Dispute Resolution), viewed it as a tool to protect the university, and some said that EODR did not reply to their complaints in a timely manner, if at all.
Cal Poly Humboldt: Survey respondents expressed distrust in the university’s ability or willingness to address allegations of harassment and discrimination.
Sacramento State: Some survey respondents wrote that they did not trust Title IX, stating they believed it only served the interests of the institution.
A Fresno State case highlighted problems
Fresno State and its handling of the Lamas case stands out, for a number of reasons.
The university never formally disciplined Lamas, instead taking steps that included required harassment prevention training for him and training for student affairs and another division on campus on executive order 1096 and the policy against retaliation. Multiple complaints against him included reports of verbal gender-based misconduct, bullying, staring at a female student-employee and retaliation, before a 2019 allegation of sexual harassment and bullying from a graduate student/employee that led to a campus Title IX investigation.
Lamas has denied all of the allegations including those by the complainant in the Title IX investigation, which included unwanted touching on her shoulder, lower back and knee or thigh, inappropriate comments about her appearance or clothing and with potential sexual overtones. But a preponderance of evidence supported the finding that Lamas had engaged in inappropriate workplace behavior in violation of the CSU executive order 1096, according to a report from Mary Lee Wegner, the Los Angeles-based attorney who handled the Title IX investigation and the CSU board of trustees’ investigation into the university’s handling of the case.
Wegner found that In several instances responses by Fresno State did not adhere to best practices regarding record keeping, documentation of counseling and training or additional follow up to determine whether the responses were at all effective.
The best practices not followed also included a failure to investigate early claims.
Instead of firing Lamas, Castro, while serving as Fresno State president, continued to back him, even after the Title IX investigation conducted by Wegner supported the claims of inappropriate behavior.
Lamas left the university with a $260,000 settlement, which was recommended by Castro and approved by former CSU Chancellor Tim White, and included a promise for letters of recommendation for future employment. Castro wrote at least eight letters on Lamas’ behalf including two that were for presidencies within the CSU system, while Castro was aware of the harassment allegations. Castro also did not notify the chancellor or others involved in the search of Lamas’ history, according to the Wegner report.
Castro in the Wegner report pointed to advice that he had received from others in justifying his handling of allegations against Lamas. Wegner said Castro’s explanations were not always credible and in some instances contrary to evidence.
Castro resigned as chancellor in February 2022, amid a firestorm of complaints and calls for investigations into his handling of sexual harassment cases when he was leading Fresno State.
A call for greater oversight across system
But systemwide, failed leadership from university presidents and top administrators is just one part of a larger problem. The majority of complaints involve students, faculty and staff, who run into a system lacking the resources and infrastructure to properly handle cases.
“You can change presidents and it doesn’t change the operation of the university one bit,” said Drew Scott, a trustee of Teamsters 2010 and skilled trades director who has worked at Fresno State for 15 years.
“It’s the administration that’s running it. It’s the administration that tells the president what they can do and what they can’t do. The presidents are just a figurehead. They might not think they are, but I know who’s running it. I’ve seen it for 15 years over there.”
Hutchinson and Argueta, the union presidents, called for greater oversight over the campuses and their responses to harassment and discrimination allegations.
“I would hope that given the findings of what has been going on, the legislature would step in,” Argueta said. “If they’re in charge, the fox will be in charge of the hen house.
“I don’t think they’re trustworthy. They will circle the wagons around one another if one of them does something inappropriate. It will be swept under the rug. I think there needs to be oversight, but it needs to be a third party outside the CSU, otherwise, it will just be the same thing.”