PD Editorial: CSU scandals warrant an independent inquiry

It’s time for a thorough and independent examination of the leadership and culture of California State University, the nation’s largest public university system.|

Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

It’s time for a thorough and independent examination of the leadership and culture of California State University, the nation’s largest public university system.

Press Democrat readers are familiar with the unfolding scandal at Sonoma State University, where at least three female employees complained about the conduct of Patrick McCallum, the now-estranged husband of SSU President Judy Sakaki. McCallum was an official campus volunteer.

CSU didn’t conduct a formal sexual harassment investigation. In January, however, the university paid $600,000 to settle a retaliation claim against Sakaki by the former Sonoma State provost who notified CSU officials about the complaints against McCallum. The university didn’t disclose the settlement until reporters started asking questions.

The messy situation at Sonoma State follows a sexual harassment case at another CSU campus that cost the university’s top official, Chancellor Joseph Castro, his job.

Castro resigned in February, after USA Today reported that, while serving as president of Fresno State University, he approved a sweetheart deal, including full retirement benefits and a glowing recommendation, for a top administrator who was repeatedly accused of sexual harassment over a period of several years.

Castro received his own golden handshake, including about $400,000 in pay, after barely a year in the top job at the 23-campus, 485,000-student CSU system.

Generous severance packages for top executives at public universities aren’t anything new, even when they leave under a cloud.

Officials at CSU and other institutions say these perks help recruit and retain top executives. They also can be used as incentives to quietly get rid of problematic administrators. But avoiding public embarrassment must not come at the expense of students and staff who may have been mistreated on campus.

These are public institutions spending public money, after all — and that extends to the Sonoma State settlement.

After initially downplaying the expense as merely an insurance claim, a university spokeswoman acknowledged this week that almost half of the money came from student fees and other campus funds. Presumably, the same sources help cover insurance premiums.

State Sen. Bill Dodd, reacting to the revelations at Sonoma State, called for an investigation. “It is concerning and deserves close scrutiny by the CSU chancellor and board of trustees as to how the interests of students and employees can be best served going forward,” he said.

The Napa Democrat is on the right track, but we believe that any inquiry needs to be independent of the university. It’s important to ensure that students and staff are safe on campus and that all misconduct complaints are taken seriously.

CSU has commissioned an external review of how Fresno State handled is case and hired a law firm to look at policies and practices on all 23 campuses and in the chancellor’s office under Title IX, the federal law that includes sexual harassment protection.

But the university is being managed by an acting chancellor, and the trustees have had a direct hand in many of the policies and settlements that need scrutiny, including the handling of misconduct complaints and severance pay for senior executives. An impartial inquiry could help the trustees and the next chancellor put the university on a better path forward.

CalMatters reports that Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, will seek an investigation by the state auditor. The auditor is independent and has a track record of providing thorough and evenhanded reviews of state agencies and programs. That’s just what CSU needs.

You can send letters to the editor to letters@pressdemocrat.com.

Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:
  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.