Joseph Castro nominated Frank Lamas to be president of CSU San Marcos despite multiple sexual harassment, bullying and retaliation complaints.
Despite knowing of years of sexual harassment, bullying and retaliation complaints against one of his top administrators at California State University, Fresno, then-President Joseph Castro nominated him for a presidency at another CSU campus, documents obtained by USA TODAY show.
The administrator, then-vice president of student affairs Frank Lamas, “has been an exemplary colleague and campus leader” who would be “well prepared” to be president of CSU San Marcos, a campus of 14,000 students north of San Diego, Castro wrote in an email Nov. 17, 2018, a copy of which USA TODAY obtained through a public records request.
The email was addressed to then-CSU chancellor Timothy White, Castro’s boss at the time. The chancellor is the chief executive of the 23-campus CSU system who appoints and supervises all 23 campus presidents.
“I write to enthusiastically nominate Frank R. Lamas, Vice President for Student Affairs and Enrollment Management at Fresno State, to be the next President of California State University, San Marcos,” Castro wrote in the email. “I believe that Frank’s strong, collaborative and mission-focused leadership would benefit greatly San Marcos and the entire CSU.”
Lamas did not win the presidential job. It is not publicly known whether he was a finalist at CSU San Marcos; the CSU has conducted closed-door presidential searches for years.
At the time he nominated Lamas, Castro had a wealth of information calling his character into question.
He had personally received at least six complaints about Lamas’ behavior, a USA TODAY investigation found. Castro’s nomination letter to White said nothing about them.
A female student who worked under Lamas accused him in 2015 of leering at her breasts on multiple occasions. Lamas repeatedly made sexist comments to and about women, according to an assessment by an outside consulting firm in 2016. That summer, the school’s interim Title IX coordinator, Erin Boele, said Lamas retaliated against her by removing her from her committee assignments after he learned she was investigating his alleged sexist comments.
“It is truly appalling that Chancellor Joseph Castro wanted to place a CSU campus under the stewardship of a man whom the Chancellor knew had faced multiple credible allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct,” said Catherine Hutchinson, president of CSU Employees Union, in an email to USA TODAY. “Student and staff lives were wrecked by one abusive manager. We ask: Where is the accountability?”
Castro succeeded White as chancellor in January 2021 after White’s retirement. He stayed in the position until his resignation last month amid mounting public pressure after a USA TODAY investigation revealed he mishandled the complaints against Lamas over a six-year period.
Despite an outside law firm in 2020 finding Lamas responsible for sexually harassing a subordinate and engaging in “abusive workplace behavior,” Castro authorized a settlement agreement with Lamas that gave Lamas $260,000 and a clean record in exchange for his retirement, USA TODAY’s investigation found. Although the deal banned Lamas from working in the CSU system again, it promised him a letter of recommendation from Castro to help him find work at another school.
USA TODAY’s investigation, published Feb. 3, sparked immediate and widespread outrage from lawmakers, students, faculty, staff, unions and newspaper editorial boards, many of whom called for Castro to resign, which he did two weeks later.
Since then, Castro has turned on Lamas, calling his actions “inexcusable.” He said he would have taken formal disciplinary action against him sooner but the lack of any formal Title IX complaints until 2019 tied his hands.
But the nomination of Lamas for the CSU San Marcos presidency offers further evidence that Castro was one of his biggest supporters and advocates.
It also calls into question why the CSU Board of Trustees entered into a settlement agreement with Castro last week despite his resignation and whether Castro is fit to continue holding a tenured faculty position at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, which his contract guarantees.
CSU trustees have known about the nomination since at least Feb. 17, the day the board met for close to 10 hours before announcing Castro’s resignation, according to three sources with direct knowledge who spoke to USA TODAY on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. USA TODAY filed public records requests with the CSU chancellor’s office and Fresno State on Feb. 15, seeking a copy of the email.
Fresno State provided the email to USA TODAY on March 7 – three days after it announced the settlement with Castro that pays him $400,000 to serve for a year as an “advisor to the board” as part of the CSU’s “executive transition program.” The chancellor’s office has yet to fulfill USA TODAY’s request.
Castro did not respond to USA TODAY’s requests for comment.
On behalf of the CSU Board of Trustees, chair Lillian Kimbell said in an emailed statement that Castro’s transition to board adviser “is aligned with” a policy dating back to 2006 that requires him to “provide substantive operational information to CSU leadership related to legislative, budgetary and academic matters that occurred during his tenure as Chancellor.”
Kimbell said that policy is now under review.
“The CSU is currently addressing institutional policies and practices such as the transition program and retreat rights,” Kimbell said. “We continue to collectively and thoughtfully work with the CSU community to strengthen the institution and provide world-class academic opportunities to Californians.”
That the board gave Castro a “generous exit package” and made him an adviser despite knowing this information “makes a mockery of the Board of Trustees’ judgment,” said Hutchinson, whose union called for a state audit of Title IX and human resources practices across the CSU system. Castro’s nomination email, she said, “further discredits” him.
In addition to nominating him for the San Marcos presidency, Castro endorsed Lamas in late 2017 for a prestigious lifetime achievement award, which Lamas won, USA TODAY reported. Castro routinely wrote Lamas glowing annual performance reviews, records show, never referring to Lamas’ pattern of troubling behavior. Even when he announced Lamas’ retirement in fall 2020, Castro sung Lamas’ praises and said nothing of the sexual harassment case.
When Castro hired Lamas in 2014, they agreed Lamas would spend three to four years at Fresno State before trying to land a presidency himself, according to Lamas’ statements to Title IX investigators in 2020. Lamas was named a finalist for the presidential opening at Weber State University in November 2018, the same month Castro endorsed him for the CSU San Marcos presidency. He did not win the Weber State job either.
Lamas denied all allegations of wrongdoing, saying his exemplary career ended unfairly because of people “with an obvious ax to grind.” He moved to Venice, Florida, and started a consulting firm called Lamas Education Advisory Services.
At the end of Castro’s year as an adviser to the board in February 2023, he can take a position as a full-time professor at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, chancellor’s office spokesperson Mike Uhlenkamp confirmed, thanks to a clause in his contract known as “retreat rights.”
Retreat rights are meant to provide faculty members who give up tenure to take administrative positions, such as dean and provost, the ability to “retreat” to their faculty positions if their administrative jobs do not work out.
Castro was not a tenured faculty member at Cal Poly or Fresno State, but he negotiated retreat rights into his contract, his September 2020 appointment letter shows. The same month, he named Cal Poly as the school he would like to retreat to should he exercise his rights, and Cal Poly tenured faculty members and administrators approved his request.
The board has since revised its practices around retreat rights, Kimbell said.
That administrators such as Castro and Lamas receive “golden parachutes” and benefits while faculty members are overworked and underpaid and students struggle with mountains of debt “demonstrates how the CSU administration resembles a gendered corporate organizational structure,” said Emily Berquist Soule and Sabrina Alimahomed-Wilson, CSU Long Beach professors who organized a petition last month calling for Castro’s resignation that 220 faculty members signed.
“Castro’s individual participation in institutional sexism is part of a broader structure that operates within the CSU administration,” Berquist Soule and Alimahomed-Wilson said in a statement. “Our CSU administration needs to be held accountable to ensure our universities are promoting gender equity by centering the needs of survivors of sexual violence who are too often dismissed and ignored on our campuses.”
Kenny Jacoby is a reporter for USA TODAY’s investigations team who covers universities, sports, policing and sexual violence. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @kennyjacoby.