You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

Joseph I. Castro

California State University

When Joseph I. Castro, chancellor of the California State University system, resigned Thursday amid criticism over his past handling of sexual misconduct allegations against a subordinate, he became the fourth prominent higher education leader to depart his institution in recent months.

Castro’s departure follows the high-profile exits of Jim Malatras, who resigned from the State University of New York system in December; Dr. Mark Schlissel, whom the University of Michigan Board of Regents fired in January; and Mark Rosenberg, who resigned last month from Florida International University after 13 years as president.

While the circumstances behind each official’s departure vary in the specifics, all are related to issues of sexual misconduct and inappropriate workplace behavior. The exits raise questions about how boards and presidents should handle sexual misconduct, and how presidents should respond to mistakes they may have made in their past.

The news of Castro’s resignation and the three departures before him didn’t surprise Ann Olivarius, a Title IX lawyer who represents survivors of sexual assault. She’s seen plenty of high-level officials step down in recent years after mishandling or committing sexual misconduct, and she thinks there will likely be many more.

“This is constant,” she said. “This is not just a bad week or bad month—it happens all the time in our business. It’s the norm.”

A few high-profile sexual misconduct cover-ups from several years ago—such as those of Larry Nassar at Michigan State University, Jerry Sandusky at Pennsylvania State University and Richard Strauss at Ohio State University—have brought increased attention to how presidents address such complaints, said David Maxwell, the former president of Drake University.

“Those kinds of high-profile cases have sharpened public attention on how presidents and institutions handle” sexual misconduct, Maxwell said. “Presidencies have blown up over the mishandling of this issue.”

When Castro was president of California State University, Fresno, he authorized a $260,000 exit package for Frank Lamas, a former vice president who was the subject of several “credible” sexual harassment and bullying complaints. Castro also “glowingly praised” Lamas in a letter of recommendation, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Over the past two weeks, more than 200 faculty members at California State University, Long Beach, as well as other system employees and students, have called on Castro to resign.

“How can an individual who willingly looked the other way, covered up, and did nothing to stop a predator for six years claim to uphold an environment that is free of gender discrimination and/or sexual harassment/violence by following the laws of Title IX?” a petition for Castro’s resignation stated. “We have no confidence in Chancellor Castro’s ability to do so.”

In a statement, Castro called the decision to resign “the most difficult of my professional life.”

“While I disagree with many aspects of recent media reports and the ensuing commentary, it has become clear to me that resigning at this time is necessary so that the CSU can maintain its focus squarely on its educational mission and the impactful work yet to be done,” he said.

Lillian Kimbell, chair of the system Board of Trustees, praised the chancellor for stepping down.

“We appreciate Chancellor Castro’s cooperation with the Trustees and his decision to step down for the benefit of California State University system,” Kimbell said in a statement.

The CSU Board of Trustees will develop a succession plan, according to a statement from the board Thursday. In the meantime, Steve Relyea, executive vice chancellor and chief financial officer for the system, will serve as acting chancellor.

The board is still working on a settlement agreement with Castro, and the system will share compensation package details once that agreement is finalized, according to a spokesperson for the CSU system.

In an op-ed, the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times called Castro’s resignation “the right way forward” and said the board hopes Castro did not receive compensation for his departure.

“Exactly what happened in the board meeting Thursday that led to Castro’s resignation has not been made public. But given the statement by Chairwoman Lillian Kimbell afterward, it appears that the trustees might have been urging Castro to leave,” the editorial board wrote. “What we hope they did not do is what Castro did for Lamas: Negotiate a goodbye package with a golden handshake, a glowing recommendation and a clean personnel record.”

It’s possible that Castro resigned quickly because the facts were not in question, said Kevin Reilly, president emeritus and regent professor at the University of Wisconsin system.

“Nobody’s saying, ‘Castro did not pay his vice president this big amount of money,’” Reilly said. “Nobody is saying that this person didn’t have a series of what—at least most people seem to think—were credible allegations over time. All of those facts seem to be pretty widely accepted.”

The same was true for Malatras, Schlissel and Rosenberg, Reilly said.

Boards today are increasingly likely to see executives’ failures to handle sexual misconduct appropriately as a liability, Reilly said, and presidents are more likely to resign before they’re left without any negotiating power.

“Maybe 10 years ago, all or some of these individuals would have thought, ‘Well, this really isn’t that big a deal. I should fight this,’” Reilly said. “But the culture has evolved, and these are intelligent people. It probably weighed on their decision pretty heavily in a way that it might not have 15 years ago.”

As boards search for their next president or chancellor, candidates should disclose any history of sexual misconduct or any experience addressing sexual misconduct by others, Maxwell said. The CSU Board of Trustees did not know about the Fresno State settlement with Lamas or Castro’s letter of recommendation for the former vice president until earlier this month, according to a system FAQ page.

“The fact that the president has dealt with this kind of issue … shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody,” Maxwell said. “The board should be aware of it.”

He also noted that boards should ask their administrators for regular reports about how the institution is addressing sexual misconduct.

“The primary responsibility of the president is to make sure that you have the infrastructure and the policies in place that minimize the chances that [sexual misconduct] will happen,” Maxwell said. “And if and when it does happen, it is responded to appropriately and consistently.”

Next Story

Written By

More from Executive Leadership