SEXUAL HARASSMENT AND discrimination complaints across California State University are largely ignored, according to a long-awaited report.
The nation’s largest public university system fails to respond adequately to sexual harassment and discrimination complaints from employees and students because of few resources and little staffing. The lack of infrastructure to address these problems have led to virtually no accountability measures and a culture of distrust across the 23-campus system.
A common perception across the CSU is that individual campus administrators choose to “protect the interests of the institution instead of protecting individuals experiencing harm.” This distrust in the system is a significant reason why students, faculty and staff said they choose not to report misconduct, according to the report. More than 24 percent of students and employees surveyed said they failed to report because they didn’t trust the university, and nearly a quarter said they did not think the university would take action. Nearly 26 percent said they feared retaliation, and more than 27 percent said they didn’t think reporting misconduct would solve the problem.
The 232-page systemwide report also found that CSU has no way to address misconduct that doesn’t rise to the level of outright discrimination or harassment but is still “disruptive to the learning, living, and working environment” like bullying or microaggressions.
“What we heard at many CSU universities were deeply held feelings of anger, grief, and pain in response to the incidents,” according to the independent report, which was based on interviews with current and former administrators and a survey of nearly 18,000 students, faculty and staff. “We heard grave disappointment and sorrow in what many viewed as an institutional betrayal.”
Cal State enrolls more than 460,000 undergraduate and graduate students. The system employs nearly 56,000 staff, faculty and administrators, of whom 3,100 are student employees.
WHAT IS TITLE IX?
- A federal civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination, including sexual assault, in education programs and institutions that receive federal financial assistance.
- What is DHR?
- CSU’s systemwide policy that prohibits discrimination, harassment and retaliation, sexual misconduct, sexual exploitation, dating and domestic violence, and stalking against students, employees and third parties.
To view the campus reports, click this link and there’s a dropdown for each campus.
The report, assembled by Cozen O’Connor law firm, found a greater need for more oversight, accountability and support from the chancellor’s office for Title IX and Discrimination, Harassment and Retaliation (DHR) compliance. There was a lack of consistency in the systemwide role of the Title IX compliance officer. In the nine years that the chancellor’s office has had a systemwide officer, three people have held the position, and each viewed their responsibilities differently. Some chose to exercise oversight of Title IX on individual campuses, while others viewed their role as more consultative.
According to the report, some campuses choose to work with and seek assistance from the chancellor’s office’s Title IX/DHR compliance team, while others don’t.
The chancellor’s office also lacks the legal staffing needed to address the volume of legal issues and complaints.
“One attorney per university plus additional specialties and administrative/management duties is woefully deficient in light of the complexity of the legal issues and is significantly below legal staffing levels at other major public university systems,” according to the report.
The report found that the chancellor’s office also lacks the ability to maintain, track and analyze data to prevent discrimination and harassment. For example, until this academic year, the chancellor’s office did not track sex- or gender-based harassment or discrimination. It only started tracking sexual harassment and sexual exploitation in 2021.
The system also lacks any mandate to require campuses to maintain or track this data but instead relies on Title IX/DHR staff at the campuses to self-report. The chancellor’s office also doesn’t have a clear sense of the number of complaints that have been formally investigated across the system.
Without this data and tracking, campuses “are not positioned to respond to patterns or trends within a particular location, setting, or department/program, or in some instances, by a single respondent, or to track the effectiveness of supportive measures and other remedies to address harassment or discrimination.”
The report recommended the chancellor’s office completely restructure its Title IX/DHR services, including hiring more personnel, developing better processes, creating an independent Center for Investigation and Resolution to offer better trained and experienced investigators to the campuses, and improving its data collection. It calls for a shift in the chancellor’s office “from the current consultative model to an active oversight model to introduce tiered accountability and ensure effective collaboration, leadership and advice.” The report concludes that there is “much more the chancellor’s office can and should do to assist the 23 universities in meeting the needs of their students, staff and faculty.”
The 23 campuses
Overall, Cal State currently lacks the ability to sufficiently and effectively carry out its Title IX and DHR care and compliance responsibilities, according to the report.
That inability goes beyond properly addressing complaints and includes gaps in providing confidential survivor advocacy, delivering prevention programs, and other campus resources like counseling and identity-based centers. Campus Title IX/DHR offices also lack uniformity and effective compliance measures.
“We learned of at least four campuses in the past several years where an incoming Title IX coordinator found dozens to hundreds of reports and emails without any record of an institutional response to the complainant or third party,” according to the report. “This is untenable.”
The report also detailed that Title IX/DHR staff regularly said they were unable to carry out their responsibilities and didn’t have the capacity to respond to every report. This frustration from the staff led to burnout and high employee turnover. Of the 23 campuses, only Chico State, East Bay, Fullerton, Long Beach and Sacramento State have had longtime Title IX coordinators and staff.
However, other campuses have lacked consistency. San Jose State, for example, has had five Title IX coordinators in five years. The campus is currently outsourcing the interim position.
In addition to their Title IX/DHR responsibilities, the campus staffs reported that their “overstretched offices” also were required to respond to Public Records Act and regulatory requests, participate in search committees, affirmative action and equal opportunity work, whistleblower reports and more.
This led to “significant delays in completing investigations, with many investigations spanning more than a year,” according to the report. And those gaps only further eroded any trust complainants had in the system, the university, and administrators. This only increased barriers and created disengagement with the process.
The 23 campuses use a mix of internal and external investigators to examine complaints. However, “on many campuses, the investigator positions are those that have remained vacant for a long period of time,” causing those responsibilities to fall on the Title IX coordinator.
The report shed light on how some basic human resource management systems are not used across the Cal State system. For example, the report detailed that the “greatest deficiencies” in tracking employee conduct were mostly with faculty records because few campus human resource departments used an electronic records management system, and files are often scattered and disorganized across campuses.
“Because the CSU is not tracking data across campuses, an employee who engages in conduct of concern at one CSU university can often seek employment at another CSU without the new university being aware of the misconduct,” according to the report.
The lack of data, tracking of reports, and personnel meant that even university officials were skeptical of the data submitted by their campuses to the law firm for the report. The report stated that despite these concerns, most Title IX/DHR functions are underresourced at most CSU universities, and only “a very small percentage of cases proceed to formal investigation each year.”
The firm outlined that Cal State also fails to have a system in place to adequately respond to other misconduct that doesn’t violate Title IX or is outside of its nondiscrimination policy such as bullying, microaggressions, intolerant behavior and abusive conduct.
Although those behaviors are beyond the scope of Title IX, the inability of the university to address them has only added to systemwide distrust.
“We repeatedly heard the perception that ‘nothing happens’ when a report is made, that the bar is too high for an individual to bring a complaint, and that the university ‘doesn’t care,’” according to the report.
More than a year ago, the trustees ordered that Cozen O’Connor law firm, which has a San Francisco-based office, review Title IX practices across the 23-campus system. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 is a civil rights law that protects people in educational settings that receive federal financial assistance from sex-based discrimination. The firm has so far received just over $1 million for the investigation and is expected to receive more as it continues working with CSU to oversee the reforms.
The firm said it reviewed campus task force reports that assessed university responses to specific incidents and issues, and in some cases, the investigative reports and documents connected to those incidents.
“At every level, we observed the need for checks and balances, quality control, quality assurance, and other structures for accountability to ensure administrative capability and accountability,” according to the report.
“We repeatedly heard the perception that ‘nothing happens’ when a report is made, that the bar is too high for an individual to bring a complaint, and that the university ‘doesn’t care.’”California State University Title IX and Discrimination, Harassment, and Retaliation (DHR) Assessment Systemwide Report
But the report stresses CSU’s inadequate system of tracking cases and recordkeeping, which has even undermined the data collected from the 23 campuses. In total, the report listed 2,593 reports of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct were found systemwide in the 2021-22 academic year.
However, the report cautions that the data have inaccuracies because CSU lacks the tools and practices to reliably collect information. The system’s current process relies on self-reporting by Title IX staff at the campus level, and there is no way to accurately track information over time. Some campuses identified “challenges with accuracy or completeness in their data.” The data also doesn’t capture metrics like the number and types of reports of sex- or gender-based discrimination and harassment. Yet, the report noted, while the data is “imperfect, it provides sufficient reliability to extrapolate key themes and observations.”
The data also included an analysis of the number of reports that disappeared because complainants failed to cooperate or communicate with investigators.
But Shiwali Patel, director of justice for student survivors and senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, said she questions the details of complaints and cases where potential victims seem to no longer cooperate or communicate with campuses.
“Did the institution actually try to reach out to the victim? Were there other ways that they could have investigated? Or was this just an easy way of disposing of a complaint and to not have to address it and have to put in the resources, time and energy to look into an issue that might actually point to a larger problem,” she said.
Disrupting the system
The issue of sexual harassment in the CSU system blew up early last year when USA Today reported that recently appointed Chancellor Joseph I. Castro, while president of Fresno State, ignored complaints of sexual misconduct for years by his vice president of student affairs, Frank Lamas, before his actions were finally investigated.
In 2020, six months before Castro was named systemwide chancellor, he agreed to a $260,000 settlement with Lamas, with a promise of a glowing letter of recommendation in exchange for his resignation. Former Chancellor Tim White approved the deal.
Castro resigned on Feb. 17, 2022. A subsequent investigation found Castro “exhibited a blind spot about Lamas and the impact his conduct had on others despite multiple allegations and confirmed findings of his inappropriate workplace behavior.”
CSU has increasingly come under scrutiny from state auditors and news organizations for poor responses to sexual harassment complaints filed by faculty, administrators and students.
Since then, a host of CSU records released to EdSource and other news organizations showed at least 10 administrators and 79 faculty members, coaches and staff across 12 campuses were disciplined or resigned before they could be disciplined between 2017 and 2021 for Title IX violations.
Cal State’s new chancellor-select, Mildred Garcia, following her appointment this month, said: “California is not the only one going through Title IX, but that report is the most comprehensive, detailed report on how to hold people accountable and put things into place to hold them accountable.
“There are no ifs, ands or buts, and we say that to our communities, and we demonstrate what we’re doing. It is my understanding that campuses have already started the implementation teams. It is my role to make sure that work gets implemented and that we hold people accountable to get it done.”
The report noted that CSU has already made moves to improve some of its policies, including not providing positive letters of recommendation to current or former employees who have committed misconduct and making administrators ineligible to retreat to faculty positions if fired.
CSU has a “lot of work that has to be done,” Patel said, especially rebuilding trust.
“Even if they fix their processes and they have stronger compliance measures in place, it’s not going to mean anything if the students and employees don’t feel comfortable utilizing it because they don’t trust the process,” she said.
More details about how CSU handles Title IX complaints will be released when the California State Auditor is expected to release its official report this week. According to the Los Angeles Times, which viewed a confidential draft of the audit, the auditors found that of more than 1,200 reports alleging sexual harassment against CSU employees, 80 percent were not “formally investigated.” The draft also detailed that although the chancellor’s office oversees the 23 campuses, it failed to have accurate information about complaints and did not track repeat offenders.