CSU trustee chair moves to open investigation into chancellor’s handling of sex abuse claims
The California State University Board of Trustees chair will ask the board to launch an independent investigation into Chancellor Joseph I. Castro’s handling of sexual misconduct and workplace bullying allegations when he was president of Fresno State amid growing demands from the state’s two top higher education legislative leaders and others to examine his role in dealing with complaints that extended over a six-year period.
Chair Lillian Kimbell said in a statement that Castro is receptive and desires an investigation. “I intend to ask my board colleagues in the coming days to support these steps, as I know it will help us improve practices and policies for the future,” Kimbell said.
Kimbell’s decision comes after Assemblyman Jose Medina (D-Riverside), who chairs the Assembly Higher Education Committee, state Sen. Connie Leyva (D-Chino), chair of the California Senate Education Committee, and the Cal State Faculty Assn., the union representing 29,000 employees, called on the board to examine Castro’s handling of a university investigation of former Fresno State Vice President of Student Affairs Frank Lamas.
“I think the most serious issue is for an administrator to not act when he or she is given…instances and allegations of sexual harassment. I think it is then incumbent on the administrator to take action and that is, I think, what needs to be looked at: what action or non-action occurred,” Medina said in an interview Saturday.
“The major responsibility of any college president is to watch out and take care of the well-being of the students, faculty, and staff,” he added. “And to the extent that President Castro didn’t do that, I find that he could have exercised better judgment.”
Allegations of sexual misconduct and workplace bullying by Lamas began in 2014. But Castro said Fresno State could not launch a formal investigation into his behavior until the first formal Title IX complaint was filed by an employee in 2019. The investigation found “credible evidence” that Lamas engaged in sexual misconduct against the female employee, including touching her knee and moving his hand up her thigh while talking about her future job prospects after two years of unwelcomed contact. Evidence also supported allegations 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.
Castro, while still president of Fresno State in 2020, quietly authorized a $260,000 payout and a retirement package. He also provided a glowing letter of recommendation to Lamas that lauded him for his “bold leadership” without disclosing the investigative findings supporting the allegations of sexual misconduct. Several weeks after approving the agreement — which Castro said barred him from including the sexual misconduct issue in his letter — he was named chancellor of the largest public four-year university system in the nation.
Lamas denied any wrongdoing during his six years at Fresno State and told The Times that he contemplated leaving his administrative position after the early allegations but Castro urged him to stay on.
Castro said in a statement Friday night that he supports Kimbell’s call for an investigation.
“I welcome an independent investigation. While I followed CSU policy and took the steps to ensure this individual could never work on a CSU campus, I recognize that certain aspects of the process should have been handled better — this is especially true of the hurt caused by my communications to the community during that time,” he said. “My expectation is that an independent investigation will not only help me in my growth as a leader, but also strengthen the work of the entire Cal State system.”
In a letter to the Cal State community Friday, he reiterated his apologies for pain caused by “Dr. Lamas’ abhorrent behavior and actions, and for any additional hurt and understandable frustration brought about by aspects of the mediated settlement.”
Castro was not available to comment Saturday and his office did not make any further comments.
In her own statement, Kimbell said settlements were often “the most ironclad way to ensure we’re protecting students and employees by guaranteeing that a separated employee isn’t able to ever return to a CSU campus.” Under Cal State policies, employees who are fired from managerial positions have the right to return to a faculty position — a policies that Kimbell and Castro said they are looking to reform.
Kimbell also said she has asked Castro to develop guidelines on the appropriate circumstances for providing recommendations for employees who leave Cal State.
Both leaders vowed to improve systemwide policies to combat sexual misconduct.
Leyva, the state senator, said that if an investigation found that Castro mishandled allegations of misconduct, Castro should “immediately resign from his position since it would call into clear question his ability to lead the California State University system and its thousands of employees.” Based on the findings of an investigation, Leyva would also convene a Senate Education Committee to further look into Castro’s handling of the allegations while at Fresno State.
A USA Today report earlier this week described allegations against Lamas over a six-year period.
In an interview with The Times on Thursday, Castro said that he followed Cal State policy in negotiating the Lamas departure agreement. Castro said he regrets writing the letter of recommendation.
Early complaints against Lamas were anonymous or the person who came forward did not want to continue with an investigation, Fresno State vice president of administration and finance Deborah Adishian-Astone told The Times. If an allegation of physical touch had occurred, however, an investigation would have been launched sooner, with or without a direct and identified accuser.
Castro did not inform the Board of Trustees of the investigation and settlement before becoming chancellor. He said that the board was not typically aware of such investigations and that because he had consulted with then-Chancellor Timothy White, the expectation was that White would share such details if he deemed it appropriate.
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