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Faculty Union Defends Its Defense of Professor Who Harassed Students

CSU San Marcos / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

The union that represents faculty members at Cal State San Marcos is defending its decision to support and advocate for a professor who fought to keep his job after university officials found he had sexually harassed his former teacher’s aide and harassed three other female students and moved to fire him.

Facing backlash from its own members about its decision to support Chetan Kumar in his fight against the university’s decision to fire him, the California Faculty Association wrote in a letter to “colleagues and friends” that its role is to represent all of the faculty members in its bargaining unit and comply with the judicial process for a teacher accused of any sort of harassment. It also warned it could have faced sanctions if it had chosen not to advocate for him.

In the letter obtained by Voice of San Diego, union officials contend they have a rigid role to carry out as representatives of faculty of the system, and that it’s the university’s role to protect students. Union officials wrote that the university could’ve doubled down on its decision to fire Kumar by proceeding to the union’s arbitration process, but the union was obligated to advocate for him. The union didn’t directly address Kumar’s case in the letter [1], but called the process valuable.

University leaders, meanwhile, similarly described their hands as tied: They wrote in a recent letter to the campus community that they faced limited options in forcing Kumar’s termination. If they went through the arbitration system as mandated by the union contract [2], they might have lost the chance to discipline Kumar at all, they contended. They called their decision to sign a settlement agreement with Kumar and his union the “best path forward.”

“Neither the system nor CFA’s part in it should be judged solely on the basis of one case, and until we come up with a better system to represent faculty and student rights, it’s the best we’ve got, and we’d all—students as well as faculty—be the worse off for its absence,” a letter signed by the Cal State San Marcos California Faculty Association Chapter Executive Board and Faculty Rights Committee addressed to “colleagues and friends” reads.

University officials went through a yearlong 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 [3]. Kumar was scheduled to teach two classes at the university in the fall following that decision. But after facing pressure from the campus community, officials announced they’d give him a new assignment in which he won’t work directly with students.

The union’s letter illustrates the group’s enormous power in the process to get rid of problem teachers. Their advocacy leaves school officials with two undesirable choices: fire a teacher and incur possibly steep costs to defend the decision, or back down and leave students at risk of experiencing harassment and abuse.

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On May 28, the school’s College of Business Administration community launched an online petition [4] addressed to the university and the union, urging school officials to fire Kumar. The community asked others to join their effort to “express our grave disapproval of the California Faculty Association for defending a faculty member’s unacceptable behavior above the interests of providing a safe environment for students, faculty, and staff.”

The union leaders said it was a matter of due process.

“We take very seriously the principle that sexual harassment is wrong and are fully aware of the historical deficiencies of our justice system to address it.  We also believe that whatever reforms we make in our justice system to protect the rights of complainants must not come at the expense of the basic rights of respondents. Everyone deserves equal rights and due process, and this should not be a controversial principle,” they wrote.

They wrote it’s a “prerequisite for our adversarial justice system that each party in a dispute between teachers and students has a right to state their case before a judge, jury, or an arbitrator who weighs both sides before making a judgment and the union has a legal, ethical and professional obligation” to represent faculty members who request it in accordance with the state Higher Education Employer-Employee Relations Act, which governs labor relations between the California State University system and the unions representing its employees. The act imposes an obligation on the exclusive representative to fairly represent each and every employee in the bargaining unit, Felix De La Torre, a general counsel for the Public Employee Relations Board, told Voice of San Diego in an email.

The union can decline to represent a faculty member who appeals discipline, but if it chooses not to in a case “in which precedent favors them,” the union would be in violation of PERB rules, officials wrote in the letter.

If an employee believes the union breached its duty of fair representation, he or she can file an unfair practice charge with that agency, De La Torre said.

De La Torre said the agency won’t take action against a union unless an employee files an unfair practice charge. If an employee does file a charge, there can be an investigative process and even a trial.

At the end of the hearing in a case, a judge issues a decision and if he or she finds the union breached its duty of fair representation and an employee shows the union’s decision to deny them representation was “arbitrary, discriminatory or in bad faith,” and violated the state law, the agency may order various remedies and the union could be required to pay lost wages and benefits, De La Torre wrote in an email.

Union officials wrote in the letter that some faculty members, even with CFA representation, have been terminated for sexual harassment. Jackie Teepen, a representative for the California Faculty Association, declined an interview request for this story.

The union and the university disagree on the legal standard the university must meet to fire a professor for violating university policy [5] related to student sexual harassment. University officials determined Kumar violated the policy [6] before moving to fire him. Margaret Chantung, a spokeswoman for the university, wrote in an email that the university believes that it can fire a professor if it has a “preponderance of evidence,” meaning there’s a greater weight of evidence on one side than on the other side, he or she violated the university’s policy.

But the union believes the university must prove a violation “beyond a reasonable doubt,” the legal burden of proof required in criminal cases.

University President Ellen Neufeldt wrote in a letter [7] to the campus community that university officials settled the case instead of going through with arbitration because they were concerned that the arbitrator would have overturned Kumar’s termination.

settlement agreement [8] between the university and Kumar shows that officials agreed to let Kumar keep his faculty job to avoid “the expense, inconvenience and uncertainty of continued proceedings,” yet Neufeldt and University Provost Carl Kemnitz wrote in the letter that such language is standard and that “neither time nor money is ever a factor in decisions related to sexual assault and/or harassment.”

The settlement agreement allowed Kumar keep his job on a few conditions: a three-month unpaid suspension and no contact with the students who complained. If the university doesn’t discipline Kumar again in three years, it has agreed to remove the dismissal and appeal letters from his personnel action file entirely.

Union officials also contended in their letter that CFA members and leaders “deeply care about students,” but their role in the university system is to represent faculty.

Chantung wrote in an email to VOSD that all members of the campus community, including the union members on campus representing its faculty, have a role to play in protecting students and are “all instrumental in helping create a safe academic environment for learning, teaching and working.”