'Blind spot': Report confirms Fresno State president bungled sexual harassment claims

Fresno State and its former president mishandled a spate of sexual harassment complaints against a senior administrator, according to an outside law firm’s examination of the matter that was released Thursday by California State University officials.

The firm’s report found then-Fresno State president Joseph Castro failed to take more rigorous action to address repeated reports of misconduct by Vice President of Student Affairs Frank Lamas over a six-year period. Castro’s "blind spot" for Lamas, the report found, negatively impacted his response to the conduct and the morale of students and employees at the school.

"The President’s failure to more aggressively respond to reports of Lamas’ alleged misconduct also allowed such conduct to continue because there were no serious repercussions for it," the report said. "In summary, more should have been done."

Castro left Fresno State in late 2020 to become the chancellor of the CSU system, a coalition of 23 state universities that includes Fresno State. But he resigned just one year into his new job after a USA TODAY investigation detailed his mishandling of numerous complaints about Lamas. The Thursday report, by attorney Mary Lee Wegner, confirmed much of USA TODAY’s reporting.

USA TODAY's investigation found that Castro personally received at least seven complaints about Lamas, including that he stared at women’s breasts, touched women inappropriately, made sexist remarks, and berated, belittled, and retaliated against employees. But Castro never formally disciplined Lamas, instead praising him in annual performance reviews and endorsing him for a prestigious lifetime achievement award, which Lamas won.

Although a 2020 internal investigation found Lamas responsible for sexually harassing a subordinate and engaging in abusive workplace behavior, the settlement Castro authorized enabled Lamas to leave the university with $260,000 and a clean record in exchange for his retirement. It banned Lamas from working at the CSU again but promised him a letter of recommendation from Castro to help him find work elsewhere.

Castro resigned two weeks after USA TODAY's investigation, amid an outcry among students, faculty, staff, lawmakers and labor unions. The CSU Board of Trustees voted to hire Wegner to investigate Castro's handling of the allegations.

The board separately hired law firm Cozen O'Connor to conduct a "comprehensive systemwide assessment" of Title IX practices across the CSU system, and state lawmakers authorized a legislative audit of Title IX and human resources practices at multiple CSU campuses, including Fresno. Those assessments are ongoing.

Title IX, which turns 50 this year, is the federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in education.

"We want to first thank the Fresno State community members who came forward to share their experiences courageously and transparently," interim CSU chancellor Jolene Koester said in a statement Thursday. "The report concluded that while the campus took action to explore and address each of the reports made, some responses substantially complied with applicable policy while others did not."

In an emailed statement to USA TODAY Thursday, Castro said he disagreed "with several aspects of the investigators' findings as they do not align with the documentation I provided to" Wegner. He did not specify the findings with which he disagreed.

"I have learned many lessons from my handling of the Title IX matter involving Dr. Frank Lamas at Fresno State," Castro said in his statement. "These lessons will ensure that I am an even more effective leader in the future, including in the area of victims rights. I will share these lessons publicly to assist higher education leaders and governing board members across the nation who face similar personnel matters."

Lamas did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment. He previously denied the allegations against him.

Frank Lamas speaks to employees and staff during a homecoming event on the lower level of California State University, Fresno's student union on Oct. 25, 2019.
Frank Lamas speaks to employees and staff during a homecoming event on the lower level of California State University, Fresno's student union on Oct. 25, 2019.

Wegner interviewed 30 current and former Fresno State employees for the review, including multiple interviews with Castro and his attorney over 14 hours. Castro justified his decisions about Lamas, the report said, by saying he'd followed advice he received from other people and that no one complained about his responses. Wegner noted Castro's explanations "were not always credible."

Castro "received or was contemporaneously aware of all reports" against Lamas, except possibly one, the report said, but the school conducted no formal investigation until 2020. Although he said he counseled Lamas each time, he never documented any steps he took to mitigate Lamas' behavior, the report found, and continued writing Lamas positive performance reviews. Any steps he took, the report found, "were not effective."

Despite knowing of numerous documented complaints of Lamas' sexually harassing conduct, Castro recommended him for presidencies at other universities at least eight times from 2016 through 2019, the report found, including two CSU campuses. USA TODAY's previous reporting found Castro recommended Lamas in 2018 for the presidency at CSU San Marcos.

These recommendations started "immediately" after Lamas underwent a sensitivity training because of the complaints about his behavior, the report found – a training Castro sat in on as a show of support for Lamas. In the case of San Marcos and the other CSU campuses, the report said, Castro "failed to inform the chancellor or other involved with the search about Lamas' history."

Additionally, after a 2020 investigation found Lamas responsible for sexual harassment and "abusive workplace conduct," Castro asked Fresno State's provost and vice president of academic affairs to consider letting Lamas exercise a clause in his contract known as "retreat rights" that would have enabled him to take a faculty position in the school of education. Castro did not share any information about the investigations into Lamas or any specifics of the findings against him, the report said.

Understaffing and poor record keeping by employees in key roles, such as the Title IX office, contributed to the school's ineffective response, the report found. A USA TODAY investigation in March found Castro severely understaffed the Title IX office for years despite repeated complaints from students and staff, leaving it unable to effectively respond to students who needed help.

Fresno State will hire a second survivor advocate and an interim deputy Title IX coordinator, President Saúl Jiménez-Sandoval said in a statement Thursday. The school is also in the process of hiring a full-time discrimination, harassment and retaliation coordinator.

"Our Fresno State community has experienced a lot of pain, and we have deeply felt the impact of these events," Jiménez-Sandoval's statement said. "I want to acknowledge and thank our Bulldog family members who shared their experiences and thoughts honestly throughout this investigation. I know this process was not easy, and I recognize that we still have much healing to do."

In response to questions from USA TODAY in February, Castro said he regretted writing Lamas a positive 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, he said, was the best way to avoid a potentially costly lawsuit from Lamas and prevent him from retreating to the faculty even if Castro fired him.

Wegner's report agreed the settlement was necessary, but it criticized Castro for not using more neutral language in the letter of recommendation.

Like Lamas, the board also gave Castro a lucrative separation agreement in March on his way out as chancellor. The board made him an "advisor to the board" for one year as part of its "executive transition program" – a position that draws a $401,000 salary.

Follow Kenny Jacoby on Twitter @kennyjacoby

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: CSU chancellor mishandled administrator's sexual harassment, review finds