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CSU Chancellor Joseph Castro resigns amid scrutiny over handling of sexual misconduct case

Joseph I. Castro
California State University Chancellor Joseph I. Castro’s resignation came after an all-day closed-door session with the Board of Trustees.
(California State University)

California State University Chancellor Joseph I. Castro, confronted with growing criticism of his handling of sexual harassment and bullying allegations involving a former top assistant, announced his resignation Thursday.

The announcement marks a stunning fall for Castro, who was hailed as a passionate advocate for students and employees and particularly praised for increasing graduation rates and narrowing achievement gaps while president of Fresno State before he was named chancellor in September 2020.

His resignation came after an all-day closed-door session with the Board of Trustees.

“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 a statement. “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.”

Board of Trustee Chair Lillian Kimbell said in a statement that “we appreciate Chancellor Castro’s cooperation with the Trustees and his decision to step down for the benefit of California State University system.”

The trustees will finalize a succession plan soon. Until then, Executive Vice Chancellor and Chief Financial Officer Steve Relyea will serve as acting chancellor until an interim chancellor has been named. Trustees plan to launch a system-wide assessment of Title IX procedures, beginning with an examination of Fresno State.

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Castro’s resignation comes amid widespread criticism after reports that as president of Fresno State in 2020, he quietly authorized a $260,000 payout and a retirement package for former Vice President of Student Affairs Frank Lamas, who was the subject of complaints of bullying and sexual harassment that began in 2014. Castro also provided a glowing letter of recommendation to Lamas without disclosing university investigative findings supporting the allegations of sexual misconduct.

Three weeks later, the Board of Trustees named Castro as the eighth chancellor of the 23-campus Cal State system. Castro said he did not inform the board about the investigation or the settlement.

Faculty at Fresno State, where Castro became the university’s first Latino president in 2013, said Thursday night that they were shocked by the news but believed that resigning was in Cal State’s best interests. Many said, however, that his resignation should not detract from what they say is the system’s ongoing problem of inadequate investigation of misconduct complaints.

“I think it’s the right move,” said Katherine Fobear, an assistant professor in Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies who was hired in 2017 when Castro and Lamas were at the university.

She said the Lamas case underscores a wider problem across the 23-campus university system of failure to properly handle misconduct complaints due in part to underfunded and understaffed administrative offices.

“I hope that people really don’t stop at what Castro did,” Fobear said. “The bigger problem is how Fresno State failed to follow and support proper Title IX process.”

Former Fresno State professor Cristina Herrera left the university last year after repeatedly reporting to top administrators, including Castro, that human relations and faculty affairs officials had not investigated repeated harassment complaints she had filed against a former faculty member, according to emails reviewed by The Times.

On Thursday night, Herrera said that Castro had no other choice but to resign.

“I think it was the most decent thing for him to do,” said Herrera, now a professor and director of Chicano/Latino Studies at Portland State University.

“The real concern for me is that Castro is one individual,” she said. “It still doesn’t address the structural problems of Fresno State.”

Xitllali Loya, 19, a former Fresno State student who organized protests at the university two weeks ago, said she was hopeful that his resignation would prompt changes to Cal State’s Title IX processes.

“It feels like a step closer to a safer environment,” she said.

In selecting Castro, trustees hailed him for both his work at Fresno State and his own life story of humble beginnings and high achievement. The grandson of farmworkers, he became the first person of color to head Cal State, the nation’s largest four-year university, where 43% of the system’s 480,000 students are Latino and nearly half of whom come from low-income families.

Castro is a native of the San Joaquin Valley. His great-grandparents emigrated from Mexico and lived in tents by the Santa Fe Railroad, not far from the Fresno campus. He attended UC Berkeley through a program for promising Latino students from farming communities, earning a B.A. in political science and later a master of public policy degree at Berkeley. He went on to earn a doctorate in higher education policy and leadership from Stanford, where he wrote his dissertation on university presidents.

Castro worked at the University of California for 23 years, serving as UC San Francisco vice chancellor of student academic affairs and a professor of family and community medicine. He also held leadership positions at UC campuses in Berkeley, Davis, Merced and Santa Barbara.

But Castro left a troubled legacy at Fresno State.

The school’s investigation of Lamas was launched in 2019 after a female employee filed an official Title IX complaint, alleging that he touched her knee and moved his hand up her thigh while talking to her in a car about job prospects. This came after at least two years of other alleged unwelcome contact.

Chancellor Joseph I. Castro approved a quiet $260,000 payout to administrator Frank Lamas, who was accused of sexual misconduct, according to documents and officials.

Lamas has denied any wrongdoing and said he received positive evaluations during his tenure under Castro. He told The Times that he had thought about leaving or moving to a faculty position after complaints first surfaced, but was encouraged by Castro to stay. He retired on Dec. 31, 2020.

“We hoped the things said about my personal character would end. I had never experienced such things,” he said.

Castro and Fresno State officials told The Times that the university followed Cal State procedures and did not immediately launch an investigation into Lamas because no one filed a formal Title IX complaint against him when allegations began to surface in 2014. Title IX prohibits sex discrimination in education by institutions that receive federal funding.

Lamas was hired as vice president of student affairs in May 2014. According to his hiring letter, he reported directly to Castro and held so-called retreat rights that would have allowed him to move into a faculty position should he be terminated from his position of leadership. As part of Lamas’ hiring agreement, he could have become an assistant professor with the university’s Department of Educational Research and Administration.

Castro said a settlement was the only way to cut ties with Lamas permanently and keep him from returning to the Cal State system.

Fresno State said it has since eliminated the “retreat rights” from hiring negotiations for employees.

The disclosures created a leadership crisis for Castro, the first Latino chancellor.

Sacramento lawmakers, the California Faculty Assn. — the union that represents more than 29,000 Cal State faculty members — and students immediately called on the board to launch an investigation, and a petition from more than 200 Cal State Long Beach faculty called on Castro to resign. Assemblyman Jim Patterson (R-Fresno) has also called for a state audit to examine Title IX protocols within the university system and to determine whether the incidents are symptomatic of a widespread problem in the nation’s largest four-year public university system.

In recent interviews, several faculty members at Fresno State said Lamas’ alleged harassment and bullying of students and staff were well-known across the campus community.

An employee in Castro’s presidential office reported to an external investigator that she had been berated and intimidated by Lamas, according to the findings of a 2020 workplace investigation report obtained by The Times.

“Over the past few years, he has raised his voice, asked questions without allowing her to answer, interrupted her and stood over her while she was sitting at her desk in a way that was not respectful,” the April 2020 report said of Lamas’ interactions with the employee.

Castro’s handling of the Lamas case highlights the wide latitude that senior administrators hold in interpreting when a complaint should be investigated, according to Kathryn Forbes, an expert in sexual harassment and employment discrimination who chairs the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Department at Fresno State.

“The primary objective,” she said, “is to try to head stuff off before going to the courtroom.”


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