Support Investigation and Changes After Fresno State’s Cover Up of Frank Lamas’s Sexual Misconduct and Harassment
CFA Fresno State chapter executive board officers demand swift and earnest efforts to effect positive changes to the discrimination reporting process and the overall culture that engendered a hostile environment to grow undeterred at Fresno State. Without this important step, we risk maintaining an institutional culture that advances abusive and predatory behavior at great cost to valued employees and students.
Sign on to the open letter below to support efforts at protecting students, faculty, and staff at all 23 California State University campuses.
We, the executive board officers of the Fresno State chapter of the California Faculty Association (CFA) are deeply troubled by the published findings of an investigation by USA Today (February 3, 2022) about what appears to be a concerted effort by then President Joseph Castro and other Fresno State administrators to cover up the sexual harassment and predatory behavior of Frank Lamas, who served as Associate Vice President (AVP) and Dean of Student Affairs for nearly 6 years under Castro.
While the revelations are shocking, they are unsurprising, given the long-standing reputation Lamas had as a difficult boss whose short-fused temper was notorious and whose treatment of staff and colleagues was, at its best, rude, demeaning, and arbitrary. We join members of the CSU Board of Trustees and California state legislature in demanding a full and independent investigation into Castro’s handling of this affair. We also demand transparency in identifying and bringing to light any participation or collusion—even if only through silence— by other Fresno State administrators who were aware of Frank Lamas’s misconduct. Moreover, we demand swift and earnest efforts to effect positive changes to the discrimination reporting process and the overall culture that engendered a hostile environment to grow undeterred at Fresno State. Without this important step, we risk maintaining an institutional culture that advances abusive and predatory behavior at great cost to valued employees and students.
While president of Fresno State, Joseph Castro’s tagline was “Be Bold.” It was integrated into his messaging and into the university’s branding and communications. It is now clear that when it came to handling the Lamas affair, Castro was anything but bold, and he is not demonstrating bold leadership today. In his response to the investigation by USA Today, Castro blames procedures and protocols that he claims prevented him from doing the right thing. This is a claim echoed by the current administration. Such a response essentially blames victims for not availing themselves of processes that the university has historically ignored or misused. Recent comments from Fresno State’s current President (“A Message from the President” email dated 02/04/2022) echo Castro’s tacit victim-blaming and claims of administrative innocence. The very culture and protocols that enabled leadership to sit idle, even with complaints on the desk of President Castro, sustained and fostered a predatory environment.
Keep in mind, however, that Lamas was an at-will employee of the university, and he could have been fired at any time. And there were many reasons to do so before Castro offered him $260,000 and a glowing letter of recommendation to leave Fresno State. Yet, Castro maintains that “policies and practices” tied his hands. It’s worth bearing in mind that the CSU creates or interprets the policies and practices that supposedly tied Castro’s hands. Blaming policy as the reason to shield a sexual predator while employees and students who were subject to his harassment and bullying flee Fresno State is not being bold. It is sheer cowardice, and a form of victim blaming that was made all the more egregious with the growing power of the #MeToo movement throughout Lamas’s career at Fresno State.
If, in fact, the terms of Lamas’s employment were so restrictive that the university’s separation from him approached impossibility (and we highly doubt this), then administrators have no one to blame but themselves for drafting and signing contracts that include provisions that make it difficult to discipline or fire those who wield so much power. Perhaps they will blame their hiring firms, their consultants, or their lawyers who persuade them that recruiting such “talent” must come with terms and loopholes that shield prospective administrators from accountability, future discipline, or being fired. Castro points out that he felt he had to shield the campus community from Lamas’s retreat rights—the possibility that Lamas, if removed from his position as AVP of Student Affairs, would be able to take a position as a faculty member. It should go without saying, but perhaps it bears reiterating: the faculty are not responsible for enshrining administrators’ retreat rights into their contracts.
While the human cost of Lamas’s horrific conduct at Fresno State is impossible to assess, we do demand a complete accounting of what Lamas cost this university. What resources were spent to recruit him; to hire him; to surround him with the spaces, people, and perks the university felt were due to him? What did Fresno State spend to hire his handlers—those who were charged with monitoring or correcting his behavior? What other costs, if any, were paid to ensure his separation from Fresno State? Keep in mind that Lamas was largely responsible for shepherding a plan for a new student union that many students opposed, as they didn’t want to see future students’ fees rise to fund this project. Bear in mind, as well, that money that had been budgeted for Academics appeared to be shuffled over to Student Affairs during Lamas’s leadership. These are only the financial costs, and do not address the social, psychological, and emotional costs inflicted upon the victims of his behavior.
This raises a question that asks us to think beyond this particular case and to ask profound questions about the ideals and realities of institutions of public education in the current moment. We have seen the increased corporatization of the public university occurring over recent decades. We’ve seen public universities uncritically accept the opinions of corporate lawyers when pondering the possibilities of litigation by students and employees. We see administrators use hiring firms to find more of the “best and the brightest'' to bloat administration to unwarranted size. Administrators routinely hire consultants, public relations firms, and other outsourced individuals/agencies to do their jobs for them. And with alarming regularity, the first, most pressing item on the agenda during the Board of Trustees’ meeting with the Chancellor during the outset of an academic year is increased executive compensation. Now, we are told that yet another outside firm will investigate Fresno State’s policies and actors. This well-paid outsider will offer suggestions about how to avoid these headline-making moments in the future. To what end? While we agree that an independent investigation is necessary, past experience leaves us wondering how a more justice-centered process for reporting and being protected from discrimination will result.
Given these deep and systemic problems, it should come as no surprise that the CSU found itself saddled with the likes of Frank Lamas. (And he’s not the only one. Just look at what’s been happening at San Jose State, where a former athletic director just received a $560,000 settlement after standing up for a swimming coach who accused the head athletic trainer of sexually abusing female athletes. The president of San Jose State, Mary Papazian, resigned as a result of this scandal at the end of the fall 2021 semester.) This is a systemic problem of the institution’s own making. CSU administrators have created a culture that attracts, produces, and protects leaders like Lamas. When, however, a commendable rank-and-file employee or a student on scholarship is on the verge of leaving their job or their studies because of the actions and behavior of an immoral, careerist, and self-involved administrator, no effort is made to protect them. The underlings of the university—essentially all who are not part of the managerial class—seem not to be the focus of those who run what was once touted as “the people’s university.” If we are to continue to rely on hierarchical forms of authority and leadership within the CSU, we need the type of people who provide leadership guided by a moral compass and who actually abide by the policies that govern the institution. Those who are incapable of doing so need to resign for the disgrace and harm they have wrought or in which they have been active, willing accomplices.