When Do People Deserve to Lose Their Job for Someone Else's Bad Behavior?
I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, and I wonder what you think too.
Way back when I was young and pretty, a boss cornered me in a room alone after everyone else was gone for the day, and this seriously scared me. I got away from him, managed to grab my purse, and left that job with no notice. I never wanted to see that guy again.
If people do harassing, predatory, or scary things, I’m completely in favor of consequences. On the other hand, it’s also pretty obvious that if I’d attempted to report him and make sure consequences were imposed, it would have gone badly for me. It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to infer how he might defend himself:
He was a pillar of the community, attractive in a middle-aged way, with money to burn and a red convertible — did he really have to assault little nobodies half his age to get someone to sleep with him? Clearly, I was just a silly young woman who misunderstood his intentions and/or was being malicious and/or crazy and/or attention-seeking and …basically he’d say I made it all up, wouldn’t he?
His word against mine. Everyone who’s been in a situation like that knows how it goes. And everyone would want to know: Did I give him any encouragement? (No. “But why else would he do that?” people might wonder.) And did I wear provocative clothing? (No. “But why else would he suppose you might be interested?” people might wonder.)
I had zero interest in this guy, he scared the crap out of me, I quit my job over it, and yet if I said or did anything to complain, it would have been hell. Not worth the trouble.
So that’s where I’m coming from. I’m sympathetic to women who have to physically fend off unwanted attention, I’m unsympathetic to predatory men, and I’m frustrated that more can’t be done to address these problems.
In a sense, I lost my job because of someone else’s bad behavior. It seemed like my best option at the time. For many women, it still is.
Frank Lamas and Fresno State
In 2014, Frank Lamas was appointed Vice President of Student Affairs and Enrollment Management at Fresno State. During the time he worked there, from 2014 to 2019, multiple informal complaints were made about Lamas being a creep and a bully. By informal I mean, my best understanding is that someone complained and said, “He did such-and-such, but I don’t want to formally make a complaint and put myself through that process.”
The fact that complaints were being made but no one wanted to make it official means that Lamas could have been building quite a reputation for himself, but it also means that with nothing formally documented, no formal complaints, no “preponderance of the evidence” (required by Title IX processes), nothing could really have been done about it, either.
Anyone who’s ever had to performance-manage someone or been asked to mediate a dispute between staff knows that without an official complaint — without someone being willing to say “This person did X, and you can use my name” — there’s nothing you can do, officially. Without documentation, without a person making an actual complaint, you might know there’s a problem, but you can’t use that information in their performance evaluation or in any other actionable way.
By 2019, after years of unofficial complaints, someone was finally willing to make an official complaint against Lamas. This article describes the complaint:
“Lamas reportedly touched the employee’s knee and moved his hand up her thigh in a car while talking to her about job prospects after at least two years of other unwelcome contact. A university investigation found the allegations to be credible, including reports that Lamas grabbed the woman’s arm and massaged her biceps, touched her lower back near her buttocks, and put his arm around her even after she asked him not to touch her.”
What happens when someone is willing to officially complain? There can finally be an investigation.
This is how Joe Castro — who at the time was president of Fresno State (ie, Lamas’s boss) described what happened next:
“The moment in 2019 when we had an actionable Title IX complaint, we acted. Dr. Lamas was off-campus within four days and never returned to the campus. One of the most significant challenges facing campus leaders is often the ability to formally investigate allegations. This reality was ever-present with Dr. Lamas. While there were earlier allegations, it wasn’t until 2019 that someone was willing to go through a formal Title IX process. To be clear, I recognize for survivors that the Title IX process can be one that is difficult, and I deeply respect their decisions either way. The bottom line is nothing excuses Dr. Lamas’ behavior, and I’m sorry for those who experienced it.”
The Title IX investigation found the allegations credible, and so then the next question is: What does the university do with Lamas?
Getting Rid of Someone With Tenure
People who hold high administrative university positions can typically be removed from those positions with or without cause, at the university president’s pleasure. (In fact, one of the complaints heard about Castro in this situation is that he could have fired Lamas at any time.)
But it’s not as easy as all that. These administrators usually leave tenured faculty positions in order to serve the administration, and so they often have a clause in their contract — as Lamas had — that says they can remain as tenured faculty if they are fired from their administrative job. Such an arrangement is called “retreat rights,” and it means they’re not really “fired” or gone at all.
This happened recently with Mark Schlissel, the president of the University of Michigan, after he was removed from his position for having an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate. He will return to the university as a tenured faculty member with a salary of $185,000. According to the Detroit News, “experts say removing him from campus could cost millions of dollars.”
That’s the choice Joe Castro faced. Would he leave Lamas in place after these complaints were made and found to have merit—to harass other vulnerable staff—or would he do everything possible to get him out of Fresno State?
And by the way, in deciding what to do with Frank Lamas, Joe Castro was Lamas’ boss, but he was hardly acting alone. Universities don’t do anything without advice from their legal team — and in this particular case, we know that Castro was advised by his own boss, then-Chancellor of the CSU system Timothy White. The plan was mediated by a retired federal judge.
In late 2020, Lamas retired from Fresno State and accepted their settlement: $260,000 offer and a letter of recommendation from Castro. If someone agrees to give up their tenured position, leave the university, never work for the CSU system again, the letter they get in return needs to be good, right? In this case the letter said, "The student experience at Fresno State will be forever improved because of Dr. Lamas' bold leadership. ... Frank is a seasoned administrator who places students, particularly those from underrepresented backgrounds, at the forefront of his thinking."
(There was no mention apparently of how he treated the staff. Not a big surprise.)
That was the price of getting Lamas to leave. As Castro described the process (quoted in MyNewsLA.com), the university
“entered into settlement negotiations for two fundamental reasons: to permanently separate Dr. Lamas from campus as quickly as possible — without a prolonged legal fight — and to bar him permanently from future employment at Fresno State or any CSU campus.
“As part of the settlement agreement, which was mediated by a respected retired federal judge, I was required to provide Dr. Lamas with a letter of reference. I did so, and included language mentioning the progress the campus had made on student success and outcomes during his tenure. In hindsight, while my motives were to expedite Dr. Lamas’ permanent removal from the CSU, I regret agreeing to this aspect of the settlement, knowing that it caused additional pain.”
Joe Castro Gets a New Job…
The settlement was mediated in August 2020. In September, Castro was offered a promotion to become chancellor of the CSU system, to succeed Timothy White. The press release described him in glowing terms:
“As president of Fresno State, Castro led the university to become a national leader in recruiting, supporting and graduating students from diverse backgrounds. Fresno State is routinely among the top public colleges in rankings issued by Washington Monthly, U.S. News and World Report and Money Magazine for its efforts to enhance student achievement as measured by graduation rates and social mobility. Castro is a respected scholar in the fields of higher education leadership and public policy and has mentored many other university presidents and other senior officers across the nation over the course of his career.
“ ‘Dr. Castro is a passionate and effective advocate for his students, his campus and the CSU – in his local community, in Sacramento and in Washington, D.C.,’ said Lillian Kimbell, chair of the CSU Board of Trustees. ‘Above all, he is a leader who inspires greatness in students, faculty and in the broader community. He is the right leader for the California State University in our current circumstance and for our future.’
“Prior to joining Fresno State, Castro served for 23 years in the University of California (UC) system, holding a variety of leadership positions culminating in roles of Vice Chancellor of Student Academic Affairs and Professor of Family and Community Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.
“Castro was born in California's San Joaquin Valley (Hanford). He is the grandson of immigrants from Mexico, son of a single mother and the first in his family to graduate from a university. He received his bachelor's in political science and a master's in public policy from the University of California, Berkeley and a Ph.D. in higher education policy and leadership from Stanford University. Castro has been recognized with alumni excellence awards from the University of California, Berkeley and Stanford University.”
Full disclosure: I’ve met Joe Castro a few times — not enough to call myself a “friend” (barely even an acquaintance) — but I will say this. He’s the antithesis of the typical schmoozy extraverted university administrator. He comes across as very low-key, soft-spoken, genuine, humble, and devoted to his family. No big ego. I was happy for him and his family when I heard he was chosen as Chancellor of the CSU system and thought he’d do a great job.
…But Not for Long
Last week, Joe Castro resigned as chancellor. This article in the San Jose Mercury News was fairly representative: “CSU Chancellor Resigns Amid Firestorm over Handling of Sexual Harassment Complaints.”
It opens, “California State University Chancellor Joseph Castro resigned Thursday amid blowback from allegations he mishandled sexual harassment complaints against a former administrator and allowed him to quietly retire just before Castro ascended to the top position in the CSU system.”
Mishandled how? “Allowed him to quietly retire”? More like “got him out and made sure he wouldn’t be back.” He wasn’t even allowed back on campus.
Apparently, faculty, staff and students across the CSU system banded together to call for Castro’s removal. As two CSU Long Beach professors described it,
“Castro’s actions covering up sexual harassment and discrimination over a 6-year period at Fresno State indicate that he does not believe the CSU needs to abide by the regulations of Title IX, and he will not protect those of us who are most likely to be victimized by predators like Lamas.”
In the same article, the California Faculty Association (the union representing CSU faculty) is quoted as making this statement:
“The handling of the incident reflects a systemic problem in society at large … where people with real institutional power protect one another by covering up bad behavior and allowing themselves and their colleagues to save face and avoid accountability, rather than doing what is best for the health and safety of the campus community.”
I Lost My Job Due to Someone’s Bad Behavior — So Did Joe Castro
The situation Castro faced was very familiar: His hands were tied until someone made a complaint. I experienced a similar problem (on a much smaller scale) when someone told me their supervisor had made a disparaging remark about immigrants (and that person was an immigrant) — but they wouldn’t allow me to use their name. I couldn’t do anything based on that unofficial complaint. I could be aware of it. I could keep my eye on that person. I could be ready to act if I noticed any other wrong-doing. But I couldn’t do anything about the immigrant remark. (Eventually that person messed up in other ways and…resigned.)
Once Joe Castro got an official complaint, he acted. He had the help of the entire university, including his own boss and the legal experts provided to him, to remove the wrong-doer, Frank Lamas, from the university. He succeeded. And yet somehow Joe Castro was the one resigning in disgrace last week, with everyone taking shots — faculty, the union, the media, all making statements as if Castro were buddy-buddy with a predator and had been covering it up. That simply didn’t happen.
We need to remember who the bad guy is — who the preponderance of the evidence revealed to be a predator: Frank Lamas. Joe Castro was the guy whose unpleasant duty it was to get rid of him as expeditiously as possible. He did.
I lost my job once because a creepy, out-of-control man couldn’t keep his hands off a woman. So did Joe Castro.