In summary

The CSU Board of Trustees needs to investigate and reform its own processes after Chancellor Castro resigned for mishandling complaints.

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By William G. Tierney, Special to CalMatters

William G. Tierney is University Professor Emeritus, founding director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California, and author of Higher Education for Democracy: The Role of the University in Civil Society (SUNY, 2021).

Last month, USA Today published an explosive expose about California State University’s new chancellor, Joseph Castro. The article pointed out how Castro, when president of CSU Fresno, had awarded the vice president for student affairs a sizable payout to retire. 

Castro lauded the service of Frank Lamas, even though numerous sexual harassment and bullying complaints had been made against him. The CSU Board of Trustees, blindsided by this information about their new chancellor, called for an emergency meeting and accepted Castro’s resignation on Feb. 17.

Few higher education leaders had fallen so far, so fast. When the board appointed Castro he was extolled as the “perfect” person by advocacy organizations, and as “thrilling” by Gov. Gavin Newsom. The adulation of Castro was largely based on his work as president of CSU Fresno, his advocacy for first-generation students and his compelling personal story. 

The board claimed they had no knowledge about the payout Castro had sanctioned. Castro argued that his actions had been signed off by then-Chancellor Tim White, and he had followed the rules. In hindsight he apologized for the harm he may have caused the victims of sexual harassment.

The board acted swiftly in two of three critical areas. First, they asked for a review of the policies that enabled someone with complaints of sexual harassment against him to maintain his employment and retire with a buyout.  Such a review is warranted and necessary.

Second, they also agreed to Castro’s request to maintain his salary and perks for one year, and then to have retreat rights at a CSU campus, which allow him to become a faculty member. Such a request, although generating protest by some faculty and legislators, is actually modest. In a litigious environment an individual can cost an organization a great deal more than what Castro requested. Recall that the disgraced president of the University of Southern California, Max Nikias, received more than $7.6 million in his exit package as the cost of getting him to leave.   

What the CSU Board of Trustees has not done, at least publicly, is look into its own processes that enabled them to hire an individual to such acclaim, and then to have him resign in less than 24 months. Instead, the board and its advocates seem to be charging ahead and considering what they want in a new chancellor.  Such advocacy is premature and unhelpful. 

The board has cost taxpayers millions of dollars by its flawed search, and it has slowed, if not stopped, the momentum that Castro had admirably started on creating a more responsive and inclusive system for first-generation students.  

Shouldn’t the board first own up to its failure to do due diligence, and then figure out how to ensure such a mistake doesn’t happen again? “Mistakes were made” doesn’t cut it. The board needs to investigate and reform its own processes.  

There are multiple possible remedies. The tendency is for boards to argue that to get the best candidates they need to conduct their searches in private. They also argue that they should keep to a minimum the number of faculty, students and community members on a search committee. Perhaps the board should rethink how it conducts searches.  “Sunlight,” Louis Brandeis famously opined, “is the greatest disinfectant.”

To be sure, any organizational process is not perfect. But to lay the blame for the current problems on campus-based policies, or an individual who acted in good faith, is in error. The CSU Board of Trustees needs to look in the mirror and rethink its policies, or we may be back where we are in another 24 months, regardless of how perfect or thrilling the next candidate may appear.

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