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Is Sexual Harassment Out of Control in the CSU System?

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The quad at San Francisco State University on July 7, 2023. (CalMatters/Semantha Norris)
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The sexual misconduct scandal at California State University brought down one chancellor and looms as a huge challenge for the new leader.

But how bad is the situation at America’s largest public university system?

Lynn La

CalMatters

No one really knows — and the two most detailed looks at the problem came up with very different numbers.

As CalMatters’ higher education reporter Mikhail Zinshteyn explains, two reports were released in late July. One, requested by state legislators and conducted by the California State Auditor, tallied 1,246 Cal State employees at the university’s 23 campuses who were accused of some kind of improper sexual conduct from 2018 to 2022. Another report by Cozen O’Connor, a law firm the California State University Chancellor’s Office hired last year, found 452 in four academic years (2018-19 to 2021-22).

There are a number of reasons for the discrepancy: Among other things, the reports covered slightly different time periods, the state auditor included additional categories of unwanted sexual conduct, campuses didn’t use the same software to track incidents, and cases weren’t always logged the same way.

Both organizations concluded Cal State collects insufficient and imprecise data. In its report, the state auditor said the system lacks “meaningful analysis” to “identify and respond to concerning trends.” And Cozen wrote that “the current process for collecting data does not result in consistent, reliable data across the system.”

The reports do little to reassure students in higher education who are victims of rampant sexual harassment at U.S. college campuses. According to a 2019 survey of 33 universities, including three in California, more than 40% of all students reported experiencing a form of sexual harassment since entering college.

Without accurate data, writes Mikhail, Cal State won’t be able to spot trends in specific locations or academic programs, or be able to discern if one person is at the center of multiple complaints.

Few Resources to Address Sexual Assaults

Proper resources, including counseling centers staffed with sexual assault support advocates, are few and far between among California public colleges and universities. Many of the Cal State’s largest campuses rely on a single survivor advocate to serve the entire student population. The 30,000 students at Sacramento State and at Cal Poly Pomona, for example, are served by only one advocate.

And while some California colleges are experimenting with restorative justice in their approach to campus sexual assault and harassment, there is concern that the model is not always appropriate for campus sexual assault cases due to the power dynamics among staff and students.

In response to the reports, Cal State estimates it’ll spend $25 million in 2024-25 (and unknown amounts after that) to adopt system-wide changes, such as updating software, training more investigators, and hiring more staff to track these incidents.

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About the Author

Lynn La is the WhatMatters newsletter writer. Prior to joining CalMatters, she developed thought leadership at an ed-tech company and was a senior editor at CNET. She also covered public health at The Sacramento Bee as a Kaiser media fellow and was an intern reporter at Capitol Weekly. She’s a graduate of UC Davis and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

About CalMatters

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

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