Monday, April 18, 2022

USA TODAY Highlights Case of HSU Dean Fired for Harassing Colleagues but Allowed to 'Retreat' into Tenured Post

Posted By on Mon, Apr 18, 2022 at 3:31 PM

USA TODAY published a two-month investigation into the case of a former dean at now Cal Poly Humboldt who was given a tenured professorship under what's known as "retreat rights," even though he was fired from his administrative role in 2016 after campus investigations found he had groped two female colleagues.

According to the article, John Lee currently teaches in the School of Education, earning $154,000 a year, under the "retreat" provision of his contract that guaranteed him a safe landing even if he engaged in serious misconduct. His reinstatement after a three-month leave placed him back among the same faculty as the women he was found to have harassed.

"Retreat rights is not designed to be a Get Out of Jail Free card," one of the women told USA TODAY, "but that's exactly how it's being used."

Lee, the USA TODAY story states, declined to comment.

The investigation into the story, which is currently subscriber-only content,  included interviews with dozens of Lee's current and former colleagues at the Arcata campus, as well as contract and labor experts and those with expertise on Title IX, which prohibits sexual discrimination in education, and the review of dozens of documents, among them correspondences to then Humboldt State University administrators about Lee's behavior, USA TODAY states.

Complaints about Lee's management style and his creation of a hostile work environment that included screaming insults began soon after he arrived at Humboldt in 2010 and continued, with those raising concerns hitting brick walls in seeking assistance from both Human Resources and other high ranking administrators, according to the USA TODAY report. That included Robert Snyder, who in one of his last acts as provost and vice president of Academic Affairs in 2014 reportedly altered Lee's contract to ensure he would receive the maximum allowable salary if he retreated to a tenured position.

Things took a turn in 2015 when Synder's replacement urged one of Lee's associate deans not to resign due to his conduct but to file an HR case, which eventually set into motion the two investigations that culminated with Lee's firing from the dean post, according to USA TODAY.

The report on California State University's far-flung Humboldt campus comes on the heels of a related investigation that USA TODAY published in February (also subscriber only), which revealed how former Fresno State University President Joseph Castro gave one his top administrations a payout deal to retire rather than take a faculty position after he was found in 2020 to have committed abusive conduct in the workplace as well as sexual harassment.

Castro, who had just been named CSU chancellor, resigned from his newly acquired position two weeks after USA TODAY published the story on that settlement with Frank Lamas and what the paper describes as Castro's "mishandling of at least a dozen sexual harassment, bullying and retaliation complaints against Lamas over a six-year span."

In the end, Castro received a $400,000 settlement and ended up using his retreat rights to be a tenured professor at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, the paper states.

"Only after USA TODAY's investigation this year exposed how retreat rights factored into Lamas' settlement did CSU officials finally address it," today's story states. "Trustees for the university system announced in March they would develop a system-wide policy prohibiting administrators found at fault for serious misconduct from exercising retreat rights. Future administrator contracts with retreat rights will also include caveat language for bad behavior."

A CSU spokesperson told USA TODAY that the vast majority of those who use the "retreat" clause are "dedicated and talented individuals" who decide to return to the classroom for one reason or another after a time in administrative roles but stated there are "rare exception," including Lee's, in which an administrator violates campus policy, is removed from their post and then goes back to teaching.

The women involved in Lee's case told USA TODAY they feel unsafe on campus but have been told by everyone from CSU attorneys to Cal Poly Humboldt President Tom Jackson that nothing can be done at this point. 
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Kimberly Wear

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Kimberly Wear is the assistant editor of the North Coast Journal.

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