Former president Castro’s ‘blind spot’: CSU trustees reveal Lamas investigation findings

Former Fresno State President Joseph I. Castro delivers a speech at Fresno State on Feb. 8, 2018. (The Collegian Archive)

A report by the California State University (CSU) Board of Trustees said former Fresno State president Joseph Castro failed to adequately handle Title IX complaints against former employee Frank Lamas. The report concludes that “more should have been done.”

“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,” wrote Mary Lee Wegner, an attorney who handled the investigation for the CSU.

The report detailed nine specific allegations against Lamas, who was the former vice president of student affairs and enrollment management, that took place from 2014 to 2019, including complaints that he stared at women’s breasts, made comments about women’s appearances, asked inappropriate questions and bullied employees.

Wegner concludes that Castro was aware of these actions by mid-2016, but demonstrated a “blind spot the President had about Lamas that negatively influenced his response to Lamas’ behavior.”

The former university president continued to write positive performance reviews for Lamas and did not document his actions, according to Wegner’s report. 

Rather than conduct disciplinary actions, the report said Castro instead “persuaded” Lamas to take harassment prevention training in 2016.

“The president’s support continued even in the aftermath of the Settlement to the extent he provided a very positive retirement announcement and recommendation letter for Lamas that were inappropriate,” Wegner wrote. 

The CSU Board of Trustees released its report on Thursday, Sept. 29, in reaction to the documented mishandling of several sexual harassment complaints

The CSU hired Wegner to conduct a private investigation on Lamas from March 25 through Aug. 10. Her report determined whether the campus’s responses to the sexual harassment complaints complied with Title IX and CSU policies and evaluated whether Lamas’ settlement was reasonable. 

Wegner concluded that Fresno State’s responses were “reasonable but not appropriately documented” and that the $260,000 settlement Lamas received to leave the university also followed CSU policies at the time, which required the settlement to be recommended by Castro and approved by former CSU chancellor Timothy P. White. 

Current Fresno State President Saúl Jiménez-Sandoval addressed the report in a campuswide email

“The findings of this review and efforts by our campus community will help us to implement efficacious policies that are evidence-informed,” Jiménez-Sandoval wrote. “I am resolved to implement mechanisms that foster a sense of safety, accountability and transparency moving forward.”

The president and the university had no comment after the email and report were released.

Jiménez-Sandoval also provided Title IX updates in the email. A second survivor-advocate has been hired and will start work in January. An interim deputy Title IX coordinator was also hired, and the university is at the final stages of hiring a full-time discrimination, harassment and retaliation coordinator.

The Fresno State president also gave updates on the Title IX Task Force

“The task force is diligently working toward making solid recommendations that will allow me to implement a robust and holistic plan for further action that focuses on protection, prevention, intervention and healing related to Title IX and Discrimination, Harassment and Retaliation (DHR),” Jiménez-Sandoval wrote. 

The Title IX Task Force has no enforcement power, but rather provides recommendations to the president regarding Title IX and DHR cases, according to Bernadette Muscat, the chair of the task force.

In an email interview with The Collegian, Muscat said the task force is broken up into four subcommittees: communication and web presence; prevention training and education; policy; and process. 

Its recommendations will be given to Jiménez-Sandoval by December, though Muscat said the deadline can be moved to February if needed. 

“The Task Force is working on recommendations to address unprofessional conduct including macro [and] microaggressions and bullying… as well as the timely response to each of these issues,” Muscat said. 

The task force is still working on recommendations to handle those agressions, how to get reports of them in a timely manner and the disciplinary actions and consequences for breaking them, she said. There are still no specifics on any of those recommendations.

Fresno State professor and task force member Kathryn Forbes said the report is “incomplete” and criticized Wegner’s investigation.

“This is why you don’t hire lawyers to investigate organizations… The report is shaped in a way that supports the position that the CSU wants,” Forbes said. “The CSU wants to lay all the blame on Castro and not look to the other offices that really played a large role in what happened.”

Since Wegner’s report focused on whether Castro’s actions followed CSU policies, Forbes encourages students to think about what’s not mentioned in the report, like whether or not the CSU policies are reasonable.

“What [Wegner] doesn’t do [in the investigation] is talk to two offices. There is no question that Castro was getting direction from the Office of the General Counsel and the [CSU] chancellor’s office,” Forbes said. 

The Office of General Counsel handled the settlement and investigation and consulted Fresno State with any Title IX or DHR complaint filed, according to previous Collegian articles. Castro transitioned to CSU chancellor during the settlement, replacing White, until he resigned after the news of his allegations broke

Forbes said she’s angry that there was no independent, third-party auditor to do the report because more needs to be investigated about the CSU’s policies, attorneys and chancellor.

“[Castro] was taking advice from other people [according to the report], but he alone is responsible? No, he’s not. I mean, the CSU is one huge bureaucracy… The General Counsel has a primary role and there’s no accountability for them, or very little accountability from them,” Forbes said. 

Cozen O’Connor law firm is working with Fresno State and the entire CSU system to make recommendations about policies and procedures, and the university is also undergoing a state audit by Assembly Member Jim Patterson.

Interim Chancellor Jolene Koester said that an independent assessment of Title IX practices across all 23 universities and the Chancellor’s Office has been initiated, with Gina Maisto Smith and Leslie Gomez, chair and vice chair of the Institutional Response Group at Cozen O’Connor, to lead the Title IX system-wide assessment. O’Connor himself will assist as well.

Correction: Oct. 1, 2022

In a previous version of this article, it incorrectly stated Cozen O’Connor’s current role with the CSU system. The law firm is now working with Fresno State and the entire CSU system to make recommendations about policies and procedures.

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