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New Report Gives CSU System a Failing Grade on Handling Sexual Harrasment

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After several high-profile sexual harassment cases, Cal State needs more training, staff and outreach to students and employees, an outside firm concludes. (CalMatters/Lauren Justice)
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California State University must hire many more employees and overhaul huge portions of its bureaucracy to keep students and staff safe from sexual harassment and discrimination, according to a sweeping set of reports from an outside law group published today.

Mikhail Zinshteyn

CalMatters

The reports, a month late according to Cal State’s own timeline, were produced by the law firm Cozen O’Connor, which system leaders hired in March 2022 to assess how the Cal State central office and its 23 campuses follow federal law prohibiting gender and sex discrimination in schools, known as Title IX, as well the system’s own rules.

Cal State sought out Cozen as part of its response to a USA Today investigation showing that the system’s then-chancellor, Joseph I. Castro, mishandled claims that a vice president at Fresno State sexually harassed students and staff while Castro was president of the campus. The allegations against Castro led to his resignation in February 2022. That followed a string of other allegations at campuses, which in some cases led to top officials resigning.

“Consistent themes that we heard from all participating constituents included institutional betrayal and grave disappointment in response to these incidents,” wrote the authors, who packed their conclusions and recommendations in a systemwide report totaling more than 236 pages plus individual campus reports that were roughly 60 pages each.

The findings provide a thorough, unvarnished examination of how the system “had fallen short in our effort to provide campus environments that are safe and welcoming,” as board chair Wenda Fong put it in May when lawyers with Cozen previewed their findings publicly.

Nor will this be the last independent report examining the system’s handling of sexual misconduct claims. The California State Auditor is due to publish its findings tomorrow following a 2022 request from lawmakers.

The system’s legal staffing “is woefully deficient,” the reports found.

Cal State has paid Cozen a little over $1 million to date for its work, which included interviews with hundreds of individuals, analyzing survey responses from 18,000 people, and three-day visits to every Cal State campus.

Acting on Cozen’s recommendations —such as hiring more employees, staff training, and outreach programs for students and employees to know how to report harassment and discrimination — will cost Cal State an estimated $25 million in the 2024-25 academic year and unknown annual costs after that, system leaders said last week.

Interim Chancellor Jolene Koester said in a statement that the report’s recommendations provide “a pathway that moves us from where we have fallen short to a stronger and more vital university system.”

“We will not squander this opportunity. We will get this right,” Koester said. “The CSU’s mission and core values demand it and our community deserves it.”

Cozen’s lawyers sought to temper the findings by recognizing the work the system has been doing to improve, but still faulted Cal State across a wide range of areas.

The findings said that at Cal State “there is currently no framework to provide the level of supervision that would help promote more consistent, effective practices across the system.” The authors recommend that Cal State hire a systemwide senior executive to oversee its entire civil rights and harassment apparatus.

Next, the system’s legal staffing “is woefully deficient,” the reports found, and at levels significantly below those of other major public university systems. Among the problems raised by the authors: Each CSU campus is assigned to only one central office attorney to handle legal issues, and all attorneys have multiple specialties and administrative duties.

Much of the report focuses on the interplay between turnover among Title IX campus employees and poor data collection, which conspires to significantly hamper how Cal State responds to sexual assault and harassment claims.

Campuses generally track claims and investigations independently. “The lack of uniformity in practices substantially hinders the ability to track data across the system in a meaningful way,” the authors wrote.

Because of the porous data-keeping, they said, individual campuses “are not positioned to allocate sufficient resources based on documented and substantiated needs” or “understand the lessons that can be learned from studying the data as it relates to questions of prevalence, potential bias, or system improvements.”

Relatedly, campuses are understaffed, further undermining Cal State’s ability to keep the university communities safe. Campuses need more staff for prevention and training, investigating claims and seeing them through, plus keeping records and sharing information with the public.

“Given the overwhelming nature of the workload, we heard significant concerns about burnout and resulting turnover,” the authors wrote. That, in addition to poor record keeping, “leads to a loss of institutional history.”

And all that “contributed to the trust gap on campuses.”

“The lack of uniformity in practices substantially hinders the ability to track data across the system in a meaningful way.”

REPORT BY COZEN O’CONNOR LAW FIRM

Staffing shortages led to other other problems. Limited outreach to staff and students about their rights creates “negative campus narratives and perceptions” and may inhibit individuals from coming forward with reports of harassment and other abuses.

In addition, lack of staff has contributed to “significant delays in completing investigations, with many investigations spanning more than a year,” the authors wrote.

But some of those delays are caused by the specific rights of individuals, including university staff, who are accused of harassment or assault. In various instances, the fact-finding process has to be redone because of state laws and some collective bargaining policies. This means that Cal State “must essentially prove the facts again as if the underlying finding had not been reached,” the authors wrote.

Employee rights are sometimes at odds with federal demands. The lack of consistency is in part due to federal rules changing regularly, especially between U.S. presidential administrations with wildly different guidelines on how campuses must respond to sexual harassment and assault claims.

The reports note that when campuses must redo the fact-finding process, both the alleged victim and those they accused may stop participating. In those cases, “the university might seek to settle the matter (by reducing the discipline) to avoid an adverse outcome before the arbitrator or State Personnel Board.”

The authors suggest some of the ill will the system faces from students and staff is unfair.

“Ironically, campus community members often criticize senior leadership and the Chancellor’s Office for sanctions that appear to be less severe than warranted, when in reality, those final sanctions are often driven by external decision-makers, not the CSU,” the summary report said, referring to outside arbitrators and administrative law judges.

The regulatory environment outside of Cal State’s control, the Cozen authors learned, meant that many campus discipline decisions were never carried out and “in many instances,” the person accused “was ordered back to campus with their position reinstated and back pay awarded.”

The authors write that “this is a debilitating pattern that completely guts the outcome of the extensive investigative Title IX process and creates an untenable position” for the campuses.

About the Author

Mikhail Zinshteyn has been a higher education reporter since 2015. As a freelancer, he contributed to The Atlantic, The Hechinger Report, Inside Higher Ed, and The 74. Previously, he was a reporter at EdSource and before that a program manager at the Education Writers Association. Mikhail was born in the Soviet Union and has a master’s degree in comparative politics from the London School of Economics.

About CalMatters

CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom committed to explaining California policy and politics.

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