Former San Francisco State manager accused of calling worker a ‘runaway slave,’ suit says

An office building
An exterior view of the CSU Office of the Chancellor in Long Beach.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

An academic advisor at San Francisco State University is suing the California State University system, alleging that it failed to do enough to intervene when a manager subjected him to racist treatment and harassment, including calling him a “runaway slave.”

The employee, DeMauriae Vaughn, who is Black, said his former manager, Karen Rubin, also evoked Confederate imagery during work interactions, displaying a portrait of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in her office. Rubin is white.

“For CSU to even employ someone who seems oddly preoccupied with the Confederacy, and has a portrait of Robert E. Lee hanging in her office, these are red flags,” said Arash Sadat, an attorney representing Vaughn, adding that a public university “that prides itself on diversity and inclusion” should have acted swiftly to protect Vaughn.


The lawsuit was filed in June in San Francisco County Superior Court, and amended Tuesday. Sadat declined to make Vaughn available for an interview.

Rubin, who resigned from the university in May 2022, did not immediately respond to requests seeking comment Tuesday afternoon. During a university investigation Rubin denied that she harassed Vaughn, said she never called him a “runaway slave” and said other comments had been misinterpreted.

The allegations in the lawsuit are “unacceptable and contrary to the values” of the system. The university immediately initiated an outside investigation after Vaughn filed a formal complaint on June 30, 2021, said Kent Bravo, a San Francisco State spokesperson.

“The administrator resigned from her position shortly before the investigation was finalized and before any personnel action could be taken,” a university statement said. “The University also took immediate steps to remediate the workplace environment while the investigation was ongoing. Had the administrator not resigned, the university would have terminated her.

“DeMauriae Vaughn is a valued member of the SF State community, who has had and continues to have a successful career working in support of our students,” the statement said. “SF State is committed to fostering a safe and inclusive place to work and study, and we are always looking for opportunities to improve.”

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The outside investigation, conducted over several months by Oppenheimer Investigations Group, found Rubin engaged in “unwelcome conduct based on Vaughn’s race,” and that it was “sufficiently severe and pervasive,” according to a copy of the 716-page report provided to The Times by Sadat and referenced in court documents.


On Aug. 13, 2019, another academic advisor told Vaughn that Rubin had referred to him as a “runaway slave” when he was absent from work, according to the lawsuit. Vaughn’s colleague also said Rubin threatened to get Vaughn “under control” the same way Stephen Douglas did, referring to the mid-1800s U.S. congressman who argued states should have authority to allow slavery within its borders.

The lawsuit also alleges that Rubin instructed Vaughn to personally greet her when he arrived at work each day, a requirement that did not apply to other workers.

Vaughn said he reported her actions to multiple San Francisco State administrators in October and November 2019, who he alleges dismissed the complaints.

Vaughn started experiencing panic attacks that forced him to go on medical leave in January 2020. He returned from leave in February 2021, working remotely because of the pandemic, but the harassment continued, according to the lawsuit.

Vaughn filed a complaint with the university’s equity programs and compliance office in June 2021, which triggered the Oppenheimer investigation.

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“Karen has continuously used her position’s authority as a way of trying to control and belittle me,” Vaughn wrote in the complaint to the compliance office. “I believe Karen is uncomfortable working with me and other minorities.”


Multiple witnesses supported Vaughn’s characterization of Rubin during the investigation, the report said.

During the inquiry, which included interviews with 19 witnesses, Rubin said the comment about Douglas referred to an analogy she made about the concept of popular sovereignty, according to the report. She also denied requiring Vaughn to address her each morning.

Rubin “initially expressed remorse” for having offended anyone, according to the investigative report, which was delivered to the university on May 25, 2022. But she became “defensive and evasive” when questioned about culturally or racially insensitive comments attributed to her, the report said.

“Rubin’s credibility was further diminished by her inconsistent statements,” the report said. “She initially denied some of the allegations and then stated she may have made the comments, but they had been misperceived.”

In the lawsuit, attorneys for Vaughn argue he is entitled to punitive damages because San Francisco State failed to take steps to protect him from harassment, discrimination and retaliation.