Castro resigns as California State University chancellor amid another scandal in higher ed

The former Fresno State president joins several prominent national university leaders in being forced to step down.
By: | February 18, 2022
Photo/California State University

California State University Chancellor Dr. Joseph Castro, in charge of the largest four-year higher education system in the nation, resigned late Thursday over reports that he failed to properly address sexual assault claims against a student affairs leader when he was president at Fresno State University.

The Board of Trustees accepted Castro’s resignation and immediately installed Vice Chancellor and Chief Financial Officer Steve Relyea into the position temporarily. It will begin its search for an interim chancellor and then conduct a formal process to vet candidates for a permanent replacement. Board officials said in a statement they would “launch an initiative to strengthen institutional culture and bring CSU to the forefront of Title IX innovation, accountability and response.”

Castro, who became the first Mexican American and Californian to be named chancellor in September of 2020 – he officially took the post in January 2021 after a seven-year stint at Fresno State – helped lead strong recruiting and student support initiatives in his previous post. But his lack of oversight at Fresno on multiple claims that Frank Lamas, Vice President of Student Affairs, reportedly ogled and harrassed women came to light in a USA Today article earlier this month. The calls for Castro to step down quickly followed, and he relented.

“The decision to resign is the most difficult of my professional life,” Castro said. “While I disagree with many aspects of recent media reports and the ensuing commentary, it has become clear to me that resigning at this time is necessary so that the CSU can maintain its focus squarely on its educational mission and the impactful work yet to be done.”

According to documents and interviews done by USA Today reporter Kenny Jacoby, Castro did not act on or discipline Lamas over at least seven complaints that he was made aware of. According to the reporting, Lamas not only verbally harassed employees but reportedly tried to proposition a female for sex. The university launched an investigation but it did not lead to his firing, instead offering him the chance to retire with $260,000 in salary, the newspaper stated. Those revelations made it impossible for Castro to stay on, and the Board agreed.

“We appreciate Chancellor Castro’s cooperation with the Trustees and his decision to step down for the benefit of California State University system,” Board of Trustee Chair Lillian Kimbell said.

Castro is at least the fifth high-profile institution leader to resign amid scandal in the past year.

  • In December, San Jose State University President Mary Papazian was officially forced to exit after reports emerged that her administration failed to address alleged abuses of 23 students by an athletic trainer that occurred before she took office. It was Castro that had to meet with stakeholders at San Jose State to discuss her replacement.
  • A few months before, University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel announced he would resign in the wake of a pair of scandals, one involving abuse allegations against late sports physician Dr. Robert Anderson and provost Martin Philbert. But in January he was fired because of inappropriate messages he sent to another university employee, according to UM’s Board of Regents.
  • Also in January, Florida International President Mark Rosenberg decided to leave his post for health reasons and because he “caused emotional engagement” with a former employee, who claimed he had been harassing her.
  • Last year, Santa Clara University President Kevin O’Brien resigned after allegations emerged that he was involved in “inappropriate behaviors” with graduate students. The ouster made national news because O’Brien was the priest who helped lead the mass at President Joe Biden’s inauguration.
  • Another chancellor, Jim Malatras at the State University of New York announced he would resign in December after details of disparaging emails about a female employee and were sent among staff surfaced. At the time, he was serving as an aide under disgraced former Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Castro, like many of the others, offered his perspective on leadership and the resilience of the university he will leave behind.

“As I know from my own lived experience, our state’s and nation’s diverse and talented young people – especially low-income and first-generation students – deserve access to the transformative power of higher education that so often can seem like an elusive dream,” he said. “I remain forever committed to ensuring that those students – our future leaders – are able to achieve that dream for themselves, their families and their communities.”