California State University Chancellor Joseph Castro resigned, effective immediately, the CSU Board of Trustees announced in a news release Thursday evening after a marathon closed-session meeting.
The announcement came two weeks after a USA TODAY investigation revealed he mishandled years of sexual harassment, bullying and retaliation complaints against a senior administrator while he was president of CSU Fresno.
The investigation sparked immediate and widespread outcry from students, faculty, staff, lawmakers and others, many of whom called for Castro to resign or an independent investigation into his handling of the matter.
“I have been honored to serve the California State University for more than eight years, including as its eighth chancellor, and the decision to resign is the most difficult of my professional life,” Castro said in the news release. “While I disagree with many aspects of recent media reports and the ensuing commentary, it has become clear to me that resigning at this time is necessary so that the CSU can maintain its focus squarely on its educational mission and the impactful work yet to be done.”
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Executive Vice Chancellor Steve Relyea, chief financial officer, will serve as acting chancellor until the board names an interim chancellor, board chair Lillian Kimbell said. The board will launch an “initiative to strengthen institutional culture” across the CSU to bring it “to the forefront of Title IX innovation, accountability and response.” Title IX is the federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in schools.
The board will vote at its meeting in March to conduct a “comprehensive systemwide assessment to provide insights, recommendations and resources to help advance CSU’s Title IX and civil rights training, awareness, prevention, intervention, compliance, accountability, and support systems,” the board said. The assessment, it said, will begin next month at Fresno State.
“We appreciate Chancellor Castro’s cooperation with the Trustees and his decision to step down for the benefit of California State University system,” Kimbell said.
USA TODAY’s six-month investigation, published Feb. 3, found Castro repeatedly declined to discipline the administrator, vice president of student affairs Frank Lamas, despite the school receiving at least a dozen sexual harassment, bullying and retaliation complaints against him over six years. Castro knew of at least seven of the complaints, USA TODAY found, but he praised Lamas publicly, wrote him glowing performance evaluations and endorsed him for a prestigious lifetime achievement award, which Lamas won.
The university launched a Title IX investigation into Lamas in November 2019 after a doctoral student who worked for him full-time filed a formal complaint saying he repeatedly touched her against her wishes, made inappropriate sexual comments and implied he’d help her get a promotion in exchange for sexual favors. An outside law firm the school hired to investigate found Lamas responsible for sexually harassing her, engaging in “abusive workplace behavior” and creating a “culture of fear,” records show.
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 the law firm 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.
Rather than fire Lamas, Castro chose to quietly settle the matter without disciplinary action. Castro authorized a $260,000 payment from the school to Lamas, along with a clean record in exchange for his retirement, an August 2020 settlement agreement obtained by USA TODAY shows. Although the settlement banned Lamas from working at the CSU again, Castro agreed to write him a letter of recommendation to help him find work elsewhere.
Three weeks after signing the settlement, the CSU board named Castro chancellor, a position he held since January 2021. As chancellor, Castro was tasked with ensuring Title IX compliance across the nation’s largest university system, which has more than half a million students and employees across 23 campuses.
“As I know from my own lived experience, our state’s and nation’s diverse and talented young people – especially low-income and first-generation students – deserve access to the transformative power of higher education that so often can seem like an elusive dream,” Castro said in his statement Thursday announcing his resignation. “I remain forever committed to ensuring that those students – our future leaders – are able to achieve that dream for themselves, their families and their communities.”
The board and Castro decided he should resign during a meeting Thursday that lasted more than 10 hours.
Before the meeting, the California Faculty Association’s CSU Long Beach chapter submitted to the board a petition with 220 faculty members’ signatures calling for Castro’s resignation. Organized by history professor Emily Berquist Soule and associate sociology professor Sabrina Alimahomed-Wilson, the petition said an outside investigation into Castro’s handling of Lamas is unnecessary because he had betrayed their confidence.
“There is no question that Castro not only failed to take action against his employee for violating university codes of conduct and state law, but instead rewarded Lamas for his reprehensible actions,” the petition said. “Our Chancellor’s behavior speaks clearly to faculty, staff, and students – Castro does not care about sexual harassment, gender discrimination, or the safety and well-being of those of us who are most likely to be the targets of predators like Lamas.”
Students and community members protested at Fresno State’s campus on Feb. 5, holding signs calling for Castro to resign.
Castro said in response to questions from USA TODAY that he regretted writing Lamas a letter of recommendation, praising Lamas publicly, not taking formal disciplinary action against Lamas and not mentioning any of his concerns in Lamas’ performance reviews. The settlement, Castro said, was the best course to avoid a potentially costly lawsuit from Lamas and prevent him from exercising a clause in his contract that might have allowed him to return to the faculty even if Castro fired him.
Kimbell told USA TODAY that board members were unaware of the matter during the interview process. Then-chancellor Timothy White knew about it and approved of the settlement, Castro said.
A day after USA TODAY’s investigation, California state Sen. Connie Leyva, D-Chino, and Assembly member Jose Medina, D-Riverside, called for an outside investigation into Castro’s handling of the allegations. Leyva chairs the state’s Senate Education Committee, and Medina chairs the Assembly Higher Education Committee. Leyva, who said she would hold hearings based on the results of such an investigation, called for Castro to resign if USA TODAY’s reporting was determined to be accurate, saying “it would call into clear question his ability to lead” the CSU.
Assembly member Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, said that he was “heartbroken” to learn how Castro handled the situation but that he believes the problems at the CSU extend beyond one person. A Fresno State alum and former two-term Fresno mayor, Patterson said his office will request a state audit into Title IX and human resources practices at Fresno State and up to four other CSU campuses to determine how widespread the problems are and how far back they go.
“I’m embarrassed for my university,” Patterson told USA TODAY. “It brings me no joy to have to shine the spotlight of accountability into my own university and the university system, but the facts demonstrate it has to be done.”
Kenny Jacoby is a reporter for USA TODAY’s investigations team who covers universities, sports, policing and sexual violence. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @kennyjacoby.
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