State lawmakers ordered an independent investigation Monday of how sexual harassment and retaliation complaints are handled by California State University, which has been shaken by scandals that have sparked public outcry and led to the resignations of top system officials.
The investigation will be conducted by the state auditor and focus on the chancellor’s office and three campuses, but the review could expand depending on what is uncovered.
In requesting the audit, members of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee cited Los Angeles Times investigations that uncovered inconsistencies in how sexual harassment and workforce retaliation complaints are investigated across the 23-campus system and detailed millions of dollars in payouts to top executives, some of whom resigned amid sexual harassment controversies.
The audit comes as the nation’s largest four-year public university system struggles with how it handles complaints under Title IX, a law that protects people against gender discrimination and sexual harassment at educational institutions that receive federal funding.
Interim Chancellor Jolene Koester acknowledged last week that CSU has “fallen short in our effort to ensure that our campuses are safe and welcoming environments … free of discrimination, harassment and sexual misconduct.”
Koester noted in her systemwide message, sent on the 50th anniversary of Title IX, that Cal State had hired a private law firm to conduct a Title IX review. But state lawmakers said an independent investigation was needed to ensure that conclusions are free of potential bias and conflicts.
“The system protects itself,” said Assemblymember Jim Patterson (R-Fresno). “I am much more [trusting] of the independent auditing processes and individuals at the California state auditor’s office than I am of a law firm that has had a history of relationships with the CSU and the chancellor’s office.”
He said state auditors will focus on Sonoma State, Fresno State and San Jose State because they all delayed properly investigating Title IX cases and penalizing perpetrators, representing a “real systemic failure.”
The audit, estimated to cost about $400,000, will launch within four months and will also examine golden handshakes, executive payouts and policies on letters of recommendation for campus officials who leave under scrutiny and the chancellor’s office role in the handling of cases.
A state audit is a “necessary first step in building back the public’s trust in the CSU,” said Assemblymember Rudy Salas (D-Bakersfield), who chairs the committee. “It is unacceptable for this nation’s largest four-year public university system to have such widespread sexual harassment allegations and payouts.”
Recent Times investigations have revealed discrepancies in how the CSU investigates Title IX and sexual harassment cases for students and faculty. In one instance at Sonoma State, the system paid $600,000 over a provost’s claim that the president retaliated against her after she reported sexual harassment claims against the president’s husband, which were never formally investigated. President Judy Sakaki has announced her resignation from the university.
In another instance, a vice president who left Channel Islands for Sonoma State faced no discipline after claims of misconduct were substantiated. And recently, at San Diego State, allegations that five members of the football team raped a minor have gone without university investigation for more than eight months. The campus said it has delayed investigating at the request of police who are conducting a criminal investigation.
Former Chancellor Joseph I. Castro resigned in February following an outcry over his handling of a sexual misconduct case when he was Fresno State president. In 2020, Castro approved a $260,000 payout, retirement package and a strong letter of recommendation for a vice president accused of misconduct and bullying. Weeks later, Castro became chancellor of the system.
Castro previously told The Times that he was advised by the prior chancellor, Timothy P. White, who authorized the settlement.