CSU San Marcos Ordeal Brings Difficult Transparency Questions to Light

Education

CSU San Marcos Ordeal Brings Difficult Transparency Questions to Light

The case of a professor who was allowed to keep his job after harassing students underscores how such incidents are typically hidden from public view and that the lack of transparency leaves students and faculty in the dark about how their schools handle sexual harassment cases.

CSU San Marcos Professor Chetan Kumar
CSU San Marcos students protest the university’s decision not to fire professor Chetan Kumar after officials found he had harassed four former students. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Last weekend, a small group of Cal State San Marcos students yelled out of blowhorns on the side of a bustling Twin Oaks Valley Road, “Protect the students, not the predator!” “Students over money!” and “We have a sexual predator at CSUSM!” while holding signs that read “Kick Out Kumar,” “Touching students without consent is not friendly” and “Protect Your Students.”

They were furious about the university’s decision to allow Chetan Kumar, a professor who previously taught in the College of Business Administration and who the school determined had harassed four students, employed. And they want the school to change its mind. University officials went through a year-long process to fire Kumar after an investigation found he sexually harassed his former teacher’s aide and harassed three other students during the 2019 school year. But after the California Faculty Association filed an appeal, the school quickly backtracked and let Kumar keep his job. Kumar was set to continue teaching in the fall but has been reassigned to an unspecified role in which he won’t work with students after Voice of San Diego revealed details of the case.

The case has raised questions about how and when administrators should communicate with the campus community about employment decisions, particularly after one of its faculty members violates school policy surrounding student sexual harassment. It’s tricky in this case: The university’s deal with Kumar essentially determined he didn’t do anything worth dismissal. In a settlement agreement, both parties agreed the deal was a “compromise of disputed claims” and “not an admission by any party of any liability.” Any communication to the school community that Kumar’s actions could have led to firing could have been an extra punishment they didn’t agree to. (In the settlement, the university agreed that if Kumar is not disciplined again within the next three years, it will remove the dismissal and appeal letters from his personnel action file entirely, and the records will only be released for legal matters or as required by law.)

Student protestors said they feel blindsided because they didn’t know about accusations against Kumar until reading the Voice of San Diego article detailing the case. They’re demanding transparency from the administration but told Voice of San Diego they aren’t getting clear answers. They said they don’t trust administrators who decided to allow Kumar to keep his teaching job, and kept the case cloaked in secrecy.

They’re also dismayed that faculty union leaders, many who teach on campus, defended and advocated to keep Kumar on campus. Now they wonder if there are other sexual harassment cases involving professors they don’t know about, and are concerned about how the case will impact students’ willingness to report incidents of sexual violence on campus.

Student outcry over the last several weeks is just part in the larger crisis provoked by the Kumar case. An overwhelming majority of the College of Business Administration faculty, staff and administrators recently passed a resolution on Kumar’s misconduct to the faculty Senate chair detailing their concerns about the university’s decision to keep him on campus and calls for transparency.

In response to the uproar, university officials have been trying to rebuild trust with the campus community by reassigning Kumar, launching initiatives related to campus culture around sexual violence and creating spaces for campus conversation around the case.

The case illuminates how incidents of harassment by problem teachers are typically hidden from public view and that the lack of transparency leaves students, alumni and parents in the dark about how their schools handle sexual harassment and abuse cases.

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School systems don’t usually notify an entire campus community about sexual harassment cases unless there’s an egregious crime like rape or other types of sexual violence involved, Billie-Jo Grant, a researcher at Cal-Poly San Luis Obispo and board member for the group Stop Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation, said in an interview. Notification is more uncommon on university campuses than on K-12 campuses, where the majority of students are underage, she said.

“Institutions don’t want to look bad because it causes a frenzy in the community. It makes them look bad in the newspaper, and it hurts their donor base. They really have to weigh their reputation with student safety,” Grant said.

Decisions to release information about sexual violence cases can be veiled by school policy, and student victims also have rights based in Title IX, a federal civil rights law. Institutions like Cal State San Marcos have to weigh the privacy of the individuals involved in each case and limitations of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a federal law that protects the privacy of student education records, Grant said. That law allows – but does not require – the disclosure of disciplinary records by universities in connection with proceedings concerning sex offenses.

Margaret Chantung, a spokeswoman for CSU San Marcos, wrote in an email that the school does not “broadly communicate” about sexual harassment cases on its campus, unless it is required to by law.

California State University policy says the university will keep the identity of any individual who has reported sex discrimination, including sexual harassment, or any individual reported to be the perpetrator of sex discrimination, respondents and witnesses confidential except as permitted by law.

And the university’s Title IX policy says that to the extent possible, “information reported to the Title IX coordinator or other university employee will be shared only with individuals responsible for handling the university’s response to the incident. The university will protect the privacy of individuals involved except as otherwise required by law or university policy.”

But the records are public. Voice of San Diego obtained records about Kumar’s case from the university through the California Public Records Act. (The students’ identities, however, were redacted in the records disclosed to Voice of San Diego.)

There are national efforts ramping up to increase transparency requirements and comprehensive data surrounding sexual violence on school campuses.

A national group of students and survivors of sexual violence at the nonprofit Know Your IX are advocating for individual states to adopt transparency requirements surrounding sexual violence to “keep schools from sweeping sexual and dating violence under the rug, ensure prospective students and parents can make informed choices about where to attend college, and provide students and alumni with the data they need to hold schools accountable in creating and sustaining safe learning environments,” the group’s website reads. The group argues that students, alumni and parents should know about how their campus responds to cases of sexual violence. They’re pushing state departments of education to develop a comprehensive, standardized campus climate survey for schools to administer every two years.

Terri Miller, the founder and president of Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation, previously told Voice of San Diego most cases of educator abuse or harassment are only revealed in media reports, not by the schools themselves.

She wrote to Voice of San Diego in an email this week that her group supports the students and faculty in their protest against Kumar’s return to campus.

“To allow Kumar’s return is a detriment to the school community and risky business from the liability standpoint,” she wrote.

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Cal State San Marcos students Mari Velasquez and Shwana Kumar organized and launched the protest over the weekend. Both are former students of Kumar’s and told Voice of San Diego they’re not only concerned the university decided to keep him on campus after determining he harassed students but by its response to concerns in recent weeks. They said Kumar never harassed them, but often pushed boundaries by asking his students to follow him on social media. (Shwana Kumar is unrelated to Chetan Kumar.)

“This is very triggering as a student,” Velasquez said.

She said many students protesting have experienced sexual violence and the university’s decision to keep Kumar on campus shows a disregard for student safety.

“You would think at least your school would have your back,” she said.

Velasquez said the university should’ve given students, who were obligated to take the course Kumar taught as a graduation requirement, a say about whether they want him on campus.

CSU San Marcos Chetan Kumar
CSU San Marcos student Mari Velasquez protests the university’s decision not to fire professor Chetan Kumar after officials found he had harassed four former students. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Kumar was set to teach two classes in the fall. University President Ellen Neufeldt wrote in a letter to the campus community that university officials settled the case with the Kumar and his union instead of going through with arbitration because they were concerned that the arbitrator would overturn Kumar’s termination.

“If they even attempted to get him thrown out, of course students would have attempted to protest in support,” Velasquez said. “To us it felt like they didn’t even give it a try or give us a chance. It seems like they were trying to cover it up.”

Shwana Kumar said the incident has caused a lot of students to question how the university is going to deal with similar cases of sexual harassment on campus.

“We feel they did this agreement, and this was a win-win for them,” Shwana Kumar said. “They said we can clean it off, give him a slap on the wrist and keep the reputation that it’s a safe school.”

Evan Roberts, a student who attended the protest, said they feel the university is ignoring the fact that it has more power over the students yet it’s maintaining that it didn’t have power to fire Kumar. Roberts said they are disgusted the university was going to let Kumar teach students in the fall, and their distrust in campus administrators, staff and faculty has significantly increased because of this case.

“What upsets me the most is they had no intention of telling us,” Roberts said.

Velasquez said students still have a lot of questions for their administrators, including what role Kumar will have in the fall. Chantung, the university spokeswoman, said in an email that a final decision about Kumar’s assignment has not been made. 

Faculty from the College of Business Administration have also expressed dissatisfaction with the university’s decision-making and that they didn’t know their own colleague had harassed students in their program.

For most of us, this was the first time we learned what was going on with this investigation. The issue has been kept under various investigatory confidentialities, and we were not privy to any facts. We were simply announced that he would be rejoining in fall. Case closed,” one faculty member, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution from the university, told Voice of San Diego.

In a resolution passed by College of Business Administration faculty, staff and administrators, they re-upped concerns about trust and transparency and called on university officials and member of the Title IX office to encourage all those affected by the case to “contact the appropriate state or federal [Equal Employment Opportunities Commission] authorities” to investigate the case.

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In a letter to the campus community on May 28, university leaders shared similar concerns to student protesters that the case may lead students to question coming forward about their own experiences with sexual harassment on campus.

“Already, sexual offenses are amongst the most underreported offenses nationally. It is important that we not let this incident derail our efforts to support survivors and encourage reporting with caring and sensitivity,” Neufeldt wrote.

Kit-Bacon Gressitt, a women’s, gender and sexuality studies lecturer at the university, told Voice of San Diego that she has helped other students through the university’s Title IX procedures and run into a gamut of problems, and she feels for the students in the case.

“I know how bitterly hurtful it is when they say, ‘If there’s a problem, come to us and we’ll protect you.’ If it’s not resolved, and they cannot and will not be there for you, there can be lifelong damage,” Gressitt said.

In a video, Neufeldt said to the campus community she “can’t change a binding agreement,” but she’ll be launching a presidential task force that will look at the university’s climate surrounding sexual harassment.

The group of faculty, staff, students and administrators will examine and make recommendations regarding campus culture and climate around sexual harassment with a focus on “accountability, safety, education and prevention,” It will begin in the fall semester when faculty and students return to campus, Chantung said.

Roberts said it’s not enough.

“We as students can’t trust many of them now,” they said.

Students plan to protest the university’s decision to keep Kumar on campus again on June 26 and spread word about the case to the San Marcos community, Velasquez said.

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