CSU chancellor criticized for handling of sexual misconduct claims while at Fresno State
In his final weeks as president of Fresno State, California State University Chancellor Joseph I. Castro quietly authorized a $260,000 payout and a retirement package with a glowing letter of recommendation for a campus vice president after an investigation found “credible evidence” that the administrator engaged in sexual misconduct against an employee, according to public documents and university officials.
In the 2019 complaint, the female employee alleged that Fresno State Vice President of Student Affairs Frank Lamas touched her knee and moved his hand up her thigh in a car while talking to her about job prospects after at least two years of other unwelcome contact. A university investigation found the allegations to be credible, including reports that he touched her shoulder while adjusting her bra strap, grabbed her arm and massaged her biceps, touched her lower back near her buttocks and put his arm around her even after she asked him not to touch her.
The subsequent 2020 departure agreement with Lamas, whom Castro hired, has prompted criticism among faculty and others. The Cal State faculty union and state Sen. Connie Leyva (D-Chino), who chairs California’s Senate Education Committee, have called on the Board of Trustees to investigate Castro’s handling of the misconduct claims and earlier knowledge of workplace harassment while he served at Fresno State.
The outcry comes after an extensive USA Today report detailed allegations of bullying and sexual misconduct against Lamas over a six-year period starting in 2014 when Castro oversaw the university.
The agreement banned Lamas from working at a Cal State campus again, but the letter of recommendation — in which Castro glowingly praised Lamas’ accomplishments — could be used for future jobs at other universities or elsewhere, according to university documents and Castro.
“This is a problem with the culture in academia. Administrators are more interested in protecting other administrators and allowing them to save face, rather than doing what’s best for students and their well-being,” the California Faculty Assn. said in a statement.
Lamas denied any wrongdoing during his six years at Fresno State.
“I chose to retire from Fresno State December 31, 2020. I received an outstanding letter of reference from my supervisor, then President Joseph Castro, and positive evaluations every year I was at the university,” he said. “Given the things said about me initially after my first two years at Fresno State, I thought of leaving or moving to the faculty given my faculty appointment in the college of education. However, I was convinced to stay by my supervisor President Castro. We hoped the things said about my personal character would end. I had never experienced such things.”
A timeline of allegations against Lamas, along with the investigation report and Castro’s letter of recommendation, were shared with The Times by the chancellor’s office.
Although complaints about Lamas began the year he was hired in 2014, the university launched an investigation into his behavior after a female employee filed a formal Title IX complaint in October 2019, alleging that he had created a sexually hostile and abusive work environment — including nonconsensual touching — for her and others. Title IX is the federal law that bars discrimination on the basis of sex at any educational institution that receives federal funding.
The Fresno State investigation examined whether Lamas violated a Cal State system policy known as “Executive order 1096,” which prohibits discrimination, harassment, retaliation and sexual misconduct, including other behaviors. The report concluded that Lamas’ endorsements from colleagues describing his positive workplace behavior “were outweighed by other credible evidence” that his behavior toward the woman who filed the complaint was inappropriate. She was not identified in the report.
The report said, “the sexual overtones of his comments and some of the touching, and the significant power disparity” between Lamas and the woman created an environment in which she “genuinely and reasonably felt was so offensive that she had to leave a job she (and others) said she loved.”
It concluded that “the preponderance of evidence” supported a finding that Lamas’ “inappropriate behavior violated both the spirit and the letter” of university policy.
In an interview with The Times, Castro confirmed that the investigation resulted in an August 2020 “mediated settlement” between the university and Lamas that included the payout, a retirement package and the letter. Castro said the agreement did not allow him to say why Lamas departed in the recommendation letter.
Castro said he regretted writing the letter and would not do so again. In the letter, he lauded Lamas, saying: “The student experience at Fresno State will be forever improved because of Dr. Lamas’ bold leadership. ... Frank is a seasoned administrator who places students, particularly those from underrepresented backgrounds, at the forefront of his thinking.”
Castro said he agreed to the settlement — with counsel to do so by then-Chancellor Timothy P. White — to ensure that Lamas would leave the university without litigation and to protect students and staff from further problems.
“I regret any harm that was done through the actions of Dr. Lamas,” Castro said.
Others criticized Castro’s silence, comparing his behavior to that of other institutions that have remained silent about sexual abuse, effectively protecting perpetrators rather than survivors of it.
“They’re trying to assure he’s taken care of, but how does that feel for the victims here?” Shiwali Patel, senior counsel for the National Women’s Law Center, said of the settlement with Lamas. “The message they’re sending is that you can get away with this behavior. It’s so important that leadership at the school sends a message that this is something that they take seriously. And it seems that they really missed the mark.”
Three weeks after the settlement was reached, the Board of Trustees named Castro as chancellor of the 23-campus system.
Castro did not discuss the investigation or the settlement with the board during the search process in 2020 that led to his appointment as head of the largest four-year university system in the nation, he said. Trustees are not always aware of settlements, he said, and he believed at the time that White would inform them of the Lamas matter if he felt it was appropriate.
“I followed all the CSU policies and practices throughout this whole situation and made sure we acted accordingly to protect our students and staff,” Castro said. “The letter of recommendation was something that was part of our mediated settlement and in retrospect I wish that I would not have done that and in the future I would not agree to something like that.”
Castro said he told the board about the investigation on Wednesday, ahead of the USA Today report. Board of Trustees Chair Lillian Kimbell maintained her support for the chancellor.
“Dr. Castro’s track record and deep support of Title IX are clear. As president at Fresno State, he acted in accordance with CSU policy in this case and used the management tools available to him to address the situation,” she said in a statement.
Castro said that before the investigation he had counseled Lamas to make “adjustments” to his behavior after he was made aware of the early allegations against him.
The first complaint came in September 2014 by an employee who alleged Lamas asked him about his sexual orientation, according to the timeline provided by the chancellor’s office. In 2015, a student complained about Lamas but declined to file a formal allegation, fearing retaliation. In May 2016, Lamas’ colleagues voiced concerns about the student affairs department’s climate. A 2016 review commissioned by the university found concerns about “abusive or unprofessional behavior in Student Affairs, including references to ‘hostile work environment’ ... and sexist and other inappropriate comments,” the investigative report said.
Lamas was not directly named in the survey comments, but he was directed to take training on appropriate workplace behavior.
Deborah Adishian-Astone, vice president of administration and finance at Fresno State, told The Times that before the formal 2019 complaint, accusations were made anonymously or by employees who did not want to take part in an investigation. If an allegation of physical abuse or touch had been made, Adishian-Astone said a university investigation would have been launched with or without a direct and identified accuser.
Adishian-Astone added that Lamas was not outright fired from the university due to “retreat rights” in his management contract. This provision, as negotiated upon hiring, gives employees the right to become faculty members if fired from their managerial position. Fresno State said the only way to permanently sever ties with Lamas was through settlement.
The policy was updated in spring 2021 for new hires and eliminated from hiring negotiations.
Cal State Student Assn. President Isaac Alferos said the topic will probably be discussed at the organization’s board of directors meeting next week. Title IX reform has already been a subject the body has been working to improve.
Patel, the attorney, said Cal State system leaders need to make sure they are adequately educating students, staff and faculty about their Title IX rights, including the right not to be retaliated against. It is also important, she said, for CSU to assess the workplace climate throughout the system and “really listen” to students and employees.
Castro said he planned to work with the board to improve the university’s policies, pledging to make them more transparent.
“I’ll be working with our Board of Trustees and our presidents to look at this and make appropriate adjustments,” he said.
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