Cal State system lacks resources, staff to handle harassment, discrimination complaints

California State University, Northridge (CSUN)

The California State University system lacks the resources and staffing to adequately respond to and handle sexual harassment or discrimination complaints from employees and students, according to a long-awaited independent assessment presented May 24 to the CSU Board of Trustees. 

The full assessment, conducted by Cozen O'Connor law firm, of Title IX practices within the nation's largest public university, including recommendations and individual campus assessments of the 23 universities and the chancellor's office, will be released as a document in June.

The law firm visited all 23 campuses and interviewed students, faculty, staff and administrators about their experiences handling and reporting complaints. Those experiences included firsthand accounts of incidents and Title IX violations, some of which have been reported publicly and many that "did not see the light of day," said Gina Maisto Smith, chair of the institutional response group for Cozen O'Connor.

The firm found that the current CSU system lacks resources, has an insufficient record management system and no accountability measures.

For example, on one campus, a Title IX coordinator oversees the human resources department, equal employment opportunity, discrimination, harassment and retaliation compliance, Americans with Disabilities Act compliance, whistleblowers and Cleary Act Compliance, Maisto Smith said.

"That one person is supported by one individual for a campus of 10,000 students," she said. "On most campuses, there is not enough people to do the work that they are assigned."

Because of this shortcoming, Maisto Smith said that the system's ability to address complaints with care and timeliness and the ability to be proactive and preventive has been affected.

  • "Many of these report findings are difficult to hear, and their recommendations are daunting and complex," interim Chancellor Jolene Koester said. "We are not going to steer away from the discomfort and the need for change. We've got a vision here. We've got a set of recommendations that move us from where we have fallen short to a new and better university system. The firm examined five areas that needed improving across the system and on individual campuses:   CSU's infrastructure lacks resources, is overloaded, hindered by insufficient records management, and has a lack of institutional history and accountability.
  • Most campuses have little preventive or educational programming on Title IX, sexual harassment or discrimination beyond legally required online programs.
  • The CSU doesn't have a system to address misconduct that doesn't violate Title IX or discrimination policies. For example, misconduct that violates professional rules or negatively affects a work and learning environment.
  • There is distrust of senior leaders across most of the campuses. And that diminished trust has led to a widespread belief that "individual campus administrators act to protect the interest of the institution rather than care for the individuals who have been harmed," said Leslie Gomez, vice chair of the Cozen O'Connor group.
  • CSU campuses have little accountability, and a "relatively small percentage of cases" are formally investigated. Disciplinary processes take longer than usual to happen.

For each point, the firm made a series of recommendations, including creating a new, standalone, oversight and accountability office with a team of people, including trained investigators to provide assistance and training to all campuses regularly. Nearly all the firm's recommendations included the need for additional funding.

"We all know that there are a lot of competing factors for funding," Lt Gov. Eleni Kounalakis said. "But I would be so disappointed if there was a dismissal of being able to institute change because people can hide behind a notion that there wasn't enough funding. ... Utilizing resources we already have to be able to follow these recommendations will be very important."

More than a year ago, the trustees ordered that Cozen O'Conner law firm, which has a San Francisco-based office, review Title IX practices across the 23-campus system. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 is a civil rights law that protects people in educational settings that receive federal financial assistance from sex-based discrimination. 

Since February 2022, CSU has come under scrutiny for poor responses to sexual harassment complaints from faculty, administrators and students. A report found former Chancellor Joseph I. Castro, during his time as Fresno State president, failed to take disciplinary action against an administrator on that campus accused multiple times of sexual harassment. Castro resigned in February 2022. 

Since then, a host of CSU records showed at least 54 faculty members, coaches and other non-management employees across 12 campuses were found to have violated sexual misconduct and discrimination policies between 2017 and 2021.