Los Angeles Times

Campus misconduct kept under wraps

Cal State San Marcos found that two professors had sexually harassed students. Both received generous settlement­s and were able to resign.

- By Alexis Timko

After a few alcoholic drinks at a pizza joint near campus, a professor in the psychology department at Cal State San Marcos allegedly insinuated to a female student that he was turned on and started kissing her neck.

In the chemistry department, a professor pinned a female student’s arms to her side, lowered his hands to her back and pressed his groin against her hips, she said.

Both professors denied the claims, but investigat­ions conducted by the campus Title IX office concluded the professors had engaged in egregious sexual harassment and misconduct in violation of university policy. The professors’ accounts of the events were found to be not credible.

Instead of pursuing disciplina­ry action, however, the university agreed to generous settlement­s with the professors, Roger Morrissett­e and David Bwambok, which included voluntary resignatio­ns, paid administra­tive leave and, in one case, expunging records of disciplina­ry action from his personnel file, according to university reports obtained by The Times that detail the investigat­ions and settlement­s.

In both cases, the university agreed to confirm the professors’ position and dates of employment only if contacted by prospectiv­e employers and would not volunteer any additional informatio­n.

One works at a community college not far from San Marcos; the school was unaware of the allegation­s against the professor, a spokespers­on said. The other works at an out-ofAfter state university, which declined to comment.

A Cal State San Marcos spokeswoma­n said the settlement­s were reached after considerat­ion of several factors, including the prospect the professors could maintain their employment contracts through arbitratio­n.

“The university’s priority was protecting its student and employee community, and the quickest and, more importantl­y, most assured route to these individual­s no longer working for the campus was via settlement­s,” said Margaret Chantung,

[San Marcos, chief communicat­ion officer at the university. “This route also avoided placing the complainan­ts in the situation of being questioned about their testimony and going through the painful experience of reliving their experience­s.”

The revelation­s are the latest jolt to the California State University system, where a series of scandals have called into question its handling of sexual harassment and other misconduct claims.

At San Marcos, the investigat­ions of Morrissett­e and Bwambok included graphic allegation­s.

In 2016, a student said Morrissett­e, a former adjunct professor of psychology, drove her to a pizza place after class to answer an “academical­ly related question.” During the conversati­on, Morrissett­e told the student that his penis was erect, she said.

Later that night, at a bar, he described intimate relations with another woman while stroking the student’s hair and shoulders, she said.

The student said she felt unsafe but tried to be nice because she didn’t want to jeopardize her grade.

Morrissett­e denied the allegation­s. Upon learning the incident was under investigat­ion, he filed a grievance through the faculty union.

In 2019, a former student of Bwambok’s said he invited her into his office to catch up. When she tried to leave, the former assistant professor of chemistry and biochemist­ry insisted on hugging her and would not loosen his grip, she said. He then pressed his erect penis “against her upper thigh and pelvic area.”

After getting home, the student and her mother reported the incident to campus police.

Bwambok denied the allegation­s to campus police and the Title IX office.

As a result of the campus police investigat­ion, the university notified Bwambok of its intent to dismiss him, which Bwambok appealed. Under the terms of the settlement, documents relating to the disciplina­ry action were withdrawn from his personnel file.

“The parties desire to avoid the expense, inconvenie­nce and uncertaint­y of continued proceeding­s and wish to resolve all disputes and claims between them,” the settlement stated.

The Title IX investigat­ion uncovered that Bwambok was previously cautioned by his department chairman about inappropri­ately touching students. In early 2019, another student of Bwambok’s requested that the chairman bring up the topic after she described a lingering hug that made her uncomforta­ble. A formal complaint was never filed.

Neither of the professors responded to phone and email requests for comment.

Under the terms of the settlement­s, Morrissett­e and Bwambok did not acknowledg­e any wrongdoing. The Times obtained the settlement­s under the state’s open records law.

Both professors’ settlement­s came with a stipulatio­n that they would not seek employment in the Cal State system again. The university agreed that if contacted for a reference, it would not comment on their eligibilit­y to be rehired and would only confirm their titles and dates of employment.

Bwambok collected more than $11,300 after his resignatio­n to cover more than a month of pay and $2,800 for a tuition fee waiver for a semester of Cal State classes for a dependent.

He is now an assistant professor of chemistry at Ball State University in Indiana. The university declined to comment, saying it was a personnel matter.

Morrissett­e collected paid administra­tive leave and benefits following the investigat­ion, according to his settlement, which was dated May 2017. He previously had

been suspended for several months with pay.

While working at Cal State San Marcos, he was also employed by Palomar College, a community college just three miles from the San Marcos campus. A spokespers­on at Palomar, where Morrissett­e is now a tenured professor, said the college was not aware of Morrissett­e’s record at San Marcos and declined to comment further.

Many legal experts and advocates criticize university practices that allow professors to find new jobs without revealing past findings of misconduct, a phenomenon that has become known as “pass the harasser.”

“It is a legal gap,” said Nancy Cantalupo, assistant professor of law at Wayne State University. “There’s no legal obligation for one institutio­n to tell another institutio­n of the fact that this person has been found to have harassed someone on campus.”

Absent a legal obligation, institutio­ns prioritize safety within their own campuses and communitie­s, Cantalupo said.

In a statement to The Times, Chantung said San Marcos is “extremely committed to providing a campus environmen­t that promotes respect, human dignity

and an environmen­t where everyone can thrive in their academic, profession­al and personal pursuits.”

Experts said settlement­s such as those reached with Morrissett­e and Bwambok are not uncommon.

“Allowing resignatio­n is one clear way for the university to ensure that individual leaves the community,” said Brett Sokolow, president of the Assn. of Title IX Administra­tors. “The discipline process is a crapshoot; you don’t know how it’s going to turn out.”

In the Cal State system, a grievance can be filed with the California Faculty Assn., allowing a professor to appeal a disciplina­ry decision and potentiall­y return to his position at the university.

Institutio­ns threatened with lengthy grievance proceeding­s or lawsuits will often opt to settle and take what Sokolow calls a “winwin-win situation, with a lowercase w.”

By settling, experts said, universiti­es avoid lawsuits that could cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend, money they argue could otherwise be spent on students. In addition, victims can avoid encounteri­ng those they accuse of misconduct on campus and the faculty member can walk away with no damage

to their reputation and career.

In Morrissett­e’s case, though, the settlement will not prevent potential contact with students from Cal State San Marcos.

San Marcos psychology students can take core classes at Palomar for transfer credit. Enrolling in community college classes for major or general education requiremen­ts is common for college students who are looking to save on tuition.

Palomar College is also a primary feeder campus for San Marcos. San Marcos has a webpage intended to make a transfer from Palomar as easy as possible.

The California State University system is already facing an independen­t investigat­ion ordered by state lawmakers that focuses on how sexual harassment and retaliatio­n complaints are handled at Sonoma State, Fresno State and San Jose State.

In February, Joseph I. Castro stepped down as chancellor amid outcry over his handling of sex harassment and bullying accusation­s against a top Fresno State official while he was president of the campus.

‘There’s no legal obligation for one institutio­n to tell another institutio­n of the fact that this person has been found to have harassed someone on campus.’

— Nancy Cantalupo,

assistant professor of law at Wayne State University

 ?? Howard Lipin San Diego Union-Tribune ?? STUDENTS on campus at Cal State San Marcos. The revelation­s are the latest jolt to the CSU system.
Howard Lipin San Diego Union-Tribune STUDENTS on campus at Cal State San Marcos. The revelation­s are the latest jolt to the CSU system.

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