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Cal State agreed to keep sexual harassment findings against two professors under wraps

Students on the campus of Cal State San Marcos.
(Howard Lipin / San Diego Union-Tribune)

After a few alcoholic drinks at a pizza joint near campus, a professor in the psychology department at Cal State San Marcos allegedly insinuated to a female student that he was turned on and started kissing her neck.

In the chemistry department, a professor pinned a female student’s arms to her side, lowered his hands to her back and pressed his groin against her hips, she said.

Both professors denied the claims but investigations conducted by the campus Title IX office concluded the professors had engaged in egregious sexual harassment and misconduct in violation of university policy. The professors’ accounts of the events were found to be not credible.

Instead of pursuing disciplinary action, however, the university agreed to generous settlements with the professors, Roger Morrissette and David Bwambok, which included voluntary resignations, paid administrative leave and, in one case, expunging records of disciplinary action from his personnel file, according to university reports obtained by The Times that detail the investigations and settlements.

In both cases, the university agreed to only confirm the professors’ position and dates of employment if contacted by prospective employers and would not volunteer any additional information.

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One works at a community college not far from San Marcos; the school was unaware of the allegations against the professor, a spokesperson said. The other works at an out-of-state university, which declined to comment.

A Cal State San Marcos spokeswoman said the settlements were reached after consideration of several factors, including the prospect the professors could maintain their employment contracts through arbitration.

“The university’s priority was protecting its student and employee community and the quickest and, more importantly, most assured route to these individuals no longer working for the campus was via settlements,” said Margaret Chantung, chief communication officer at the university. “This route also avoided placing the complainants in the situation of being questioned about their testimony and going through the painful experience of reliving their experiences.”

The revelations are the latest jolt to the California State University system, where a series of scandals have called into question its handling of sexual harassment and other misconduct claims.

Recent revelations about how California State University handled sexual harassment and workplace retaliation complaints have rocked the nation’s largest four-year public university system.

At San Marcos, the investigations of Morrissette and Bwambok included graphic allegations.

In 2016, a student said Morrissette, a former adjunct professor of psychology, drove her to a pizza place after class to answer an “academically related question.”

During the conversation, Morrissette told the student that his penis was erect, she said.

Later that night, at a bar, he described intimate relations with another woman while stroking the student’s hair and shoulders, she said.

The student said she felt unsafe but tried to be nice because she didn’t want to jeopardize her grade.

Morrissette denied the allegations. Upon learning the incident was under investigation, he filed a grievance through the faculty union.

In 2019, a former student of Bwambok’s said he invited her into his office to catch up.

When she tried to leave, the former assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry insisted on hugging her and would not loosen his grip, she said. He then pressed his erect penis “against her upper thigh and pelvic area.”

After getting home, the student and her mother reported the incident to campus police.

Bwambok denied the allegations to campus police and the Title IX office.

As a result of the campus police investigation, the university notified Bwambok of its intent to dismiss him, which Bwambok appealed. Under the terms of the settlement, documents relating to the disciplinary action were withdrawn from his personnel file.

“The parties desire to avoid the expense, inconvenience and uncertainty of continued proceedings and wish to resolve all disputes and claims between them,” the settlement stated.

The Title IX investigation uncovered that Bwambok was previously cautioned by his department chairman about inappropriately touching students. In early 2019, another student of Bwambok’s requested that the chairman bring up the topic after she described a lingering hug that made her uncomfortable. A formal complaint was never filed.

Neither of the professors responded to phone and email requests for comment.

Under the terms of the settlements, Morrissette and Bwambok did not acknowledge any wrongdoing. The Times obtained the settlements under the state’s open records law.

Both professors’ settlements came with a stipulation that they would not seek employment in the Cal State system again. The university agreed that if contacted for a reference, it would not comment on their eligibility to be rehired and would only confirm their titles and dates of employment.

Bwambok collected more than $11,300 after his resignation to cover more than a month of pay and $2,800 for a tuition fee waiver for a semester of Cal State classes for a dependent.

He is now an assistant professor of chemistry at Ball State University in Indiana. The university declined to comment, saying it was a personnel matter.

Morrissette collected paid administrative leave and benefits following the investigation, according to his settlement, which was dated May 2017. He previously had been suspended for several months with pay.

While working at Cal State San Marcos, he was also employed by Palomar College, a community college just three miles from the San Marcos campus. A spokesperson at Palomar, where Morrissette is now a tenured professor, said the college was not aware of Morrissette’s record at San Marcos and declined to comment further.

Many legal experts and advocates criticize university practices that allow professors to find new jobs without revealing past findings of misconduct, a phenomenon that has become known as “pass the harasser.”

“It is a legal gap,” said Nancy Cantalupo, assistant professor of law at Wayne State University. “There’s no legal obligation for one institution to tell another institution of the fact that this person has been found to have harassed someone on campus.”

Absent a legal obligation, institutions prioritize safety within their own campuses and communities, Cantalupo said.

In a statement to The Times, Chantung said San Marcos is “extremely committed to providing a campus environment that promotes respect, human dignity and an environment where everyone can thrive in their academic, professional and personal pursuits.”

Experts said settlements such as those reached with Morrissette and Bwambok are not uncommon.

“Allowing resignation is one clear way for the university to ensure that individual leaves the community,” said Brett Sokolow, president of the Assn. of Title IX Administrators. “The discipline process is a crapshoot; you don’t know how it’s going to turn out.”

In the Cal State system, a grievance can be filed with the California Faculty Assn., allowing a professor to appeal a disciplinary decision and potentially return to his position at the university.

Institutions threatened with lengthy grievance proceedings or lawsuits will often opt to settle and take what Sokolow calls a “win-win-win situation, with a lowercase w.”

By settling, experts said, universities avoid lawsuits that could cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend, money they argue could otherwise be spent on students. In addition, victims can avoid encountering those they accuse of misconduct on campus and the faculty member can walk away with no damage to their reputation and career.

In Morrissette’s case, though, the settlement will not prevent potential contact with students from Cal State San Marcos.

San Marcos psychology students can take core classes at Palomar for transfer credit. Enrolling in community college classes for major or general education requirements is common for college students who are looking to save on tuition.

Palomar College is also a primary feeder campus for San Marcos. San Marcos has a webpage intended to make a transfer from Palomar as easy as possible.

The California State University system is already facing an independent investigation ordered by state lawmakers that focuses on how sexual harassment and retaliation complaints are handled at Sonoma State, Fresno State and San Jose State.

In February, Joseph I. Castro stepped down as chancellor amid outcry over his handling of sex harassment and workforce bullying accusations against a top Fresno State official while he was president of the campus.

Times staff writers Colleen Shalby and Robert J. Lopez contributed to this report


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