When Leadership Fails: What seems to be the problem at Sacramento State?

In the past few years, Sac State has spent and wasted well over one million dollars on lawsuits that could easily have been avoided. These are text book examples of what it costs when management ignores workplace harassment. It’s a text book example of what happens when leadership fails.

The most recent case to hit the news (see story) has actually been going on since 2005.   After spending money on four investigations and who knows how much in attorney fees, the campus ended up paying $900,000 to three female professors. And it’s not over yet.

It’s an issue that could have been put to rest five years ago at hardly any cost at all. You have to wonder if It was anything other than administrative incompetence that has kept it going.

What happened is that three female professors reported that students had come to them with complaints about Professor Wilfrido Corral. He was sexually harassing students. The three professors reported the complaints, as required, and four students came forward. An investigation found their complaints to be valid, and one student got a $15,000 settlement from the University. But things got ugly after the the three professors complained. As described by campus attorney Dawn Theodora: "Corral basically went on a vendetta against them … they were just doing their jobs.

So first we have harassment, and then we have retaliation.

And what did the campus Human Resource managers do about Professor Will Corral? Well, basically nothing. They put a letter of reprimand in his personnel file (a letter that would later “disappear”) and they made him take the sexual harassment training that all staff are required to take anyway.

The legal documents suggest that a turning point came in August of 2006.

Before any of the other faculty knew about the investigation or the findings, Corral was elected to be the new Department Chair. Corral took the reins early and started retaliating against the whistle blowers. And then in August, he was seated as Chair.

The women didn’t seem to understand why someone who preys on students and retaliates against whistle blowers would be seated as a Department Chair. Why would the campus allow someone like that to maintain a position of power? They complained even more when he took control.

Handling what had now become an ugly affair were Human Resources Vice President David Wagner and Associate Vice President Kent Porter. On the organizational chart, they sit right below President Alex Gonzales.

Porter woud later tell an investigator that they spoke to the woman who complained the loudest. They were:  “trying to explain … that human resources had taken the appropriate action against Corral.”   He thought the woman was just “not letting it go.”

Dave Wagner told the investigator that maybe she didn’t know about the letter of reprimand, and so she “probably felt that nothing was done.” Wagner said that “she views everything as black and whiteand “probably believes that Corral should have been fired.”

Obviously, he should have been fired, perhaps maybe just to protect students. And if for some reason he wasn’t to be fired, why would they grant him a perch from which to prey?

Peter Lau, the campus Affirmative Action Officer met with Wagner and Porter about this. Lau told the investigator that there was “no policy in place that would allow them to remove him or otherwise prevent him from taking the Chair position.” So it was like they didn’t know what to do.

Porter was in the meeting when the decision was made, but in discussing it later,   he “could not recall who was responsible for making the decision to allow Corral to assume the Chair.

Obviously, the decision was the responsibility of Dave Wagner, the Vice President for Human Resources, He was in the meeting as the high man on the organizational chart. Referring to the fact that Carrol had sexually harassed students, Wagner later recalled that “it was difficult to determine if the conduct by Corral was unwelcomed.

Maybe it’s true that the two students who accepted Corral’s dinner invitation welcomed the invitation. But it is hard to imagine that they wanted him to hit on them, or talk about being a “sex addict” or to “talk about doing it doggy style.” It is certain that they did not welcome that as dinner talk. The complaints from the students were well founded.

Years went on and it wasn’t resolved and just got worse.   Corral would retaliate and the women  would complain and there would be investigations and nothing would change. There was mediation and there were meetings with the Provost,  Joe Sheley (the other No. 2 man on campus). Eventually, two of the professors who complained retired early, totally stressed out. 

Why is this case still unsettled, even now in the Summer of 2011? It continues because of administrative incompetence.

The generous interpretation is that despite their positions, Sheley, Wagner and Porter just didn’t get it. They didn’t get that there was anything wrong or that these things just fester and don’t go away.  Sheley later told the investigator that he “does not believe anyone at the University overlooked the issues or concerns with respect to Corral.”  Perhaps not,  but they didn't seem to understand what it was that they were looking at. 

Wagner and Porter described the situation as an “intradepartmental policy dispute,” a “personal dispute,” and an “interpersonal issue.”

It had apparently become that. It became personal. The women were angry that their complaints had been ignored. They were in pain, it wouldn’t stop and there was some sporadic use of abusive language.

But that wasn’t the problem. The problem was that there had been no remedy for the retaliation. It was no longer about the original complaint regarding the harassment of students, now it was about the fact that Corral had gone on the attack against the women who were just doing their jobs.”

Retaliation is illegal, and juries treat retaliation more seriously than even harassment and discrimination claims.

Jurors tend to have a hard time when someone says that they were mistreated because of their status or who they are. The jurors think: “they treated everybody badly, it wasn’t because she was a woman.” On the other hand, in retaliation cases, jurors naturally understand when someone says they were mistreated because they complained. Most people are cautious about complaining, they know what can happen. And juries know that it’s not right and that people shouldn’t be bullied.

The problem at Sac State is that the campus treated the problem like it was “failure to communicate.”   They treated it like the women were the problem and that their complaints were about nothing more than the ordinary tribulations and minor annoyances that often take place at work and that all employees experience.

There is no general civility code for the American workplace. Skilled leadership and good judgment are required to to know when complaints are serious and how they should properly be handled. Sac State just didn’t get it, and the problem only got worse.

Eventually, the women sued, at a cost to the campus of at least a million dollars. The women got $900,000. The campus has defended that payment as having been made in good faith. The campus had to admit that the women deserved the money.

As for Corral, he’s what’s keeping it going now.

Eventually, after years trying to avoid the problem, the campus had to actually fire him. So now he’s suing the campus. You can just wait to hear his attorney say: “in all these years, the campus never did anything … they didn’t think he did anything wrong.”

Campus attorney Christine D. Lovely said in a hearing that he was fired for “immoral and unprofessional conduct,” which is exactly what the women complained about in 2005.

The problem at Sac State is that this is not an anomalous case. It’s not something out of the ordinary. There is a case to be made that at Sac State, complaints about abuse are routinely ignored and that the behavior is tolerated or effectively condoned. That is what seems to have happened in the case above and the generous interpretation is that it was the result of mismanagement and bad leadership.

In the past few years, the campus has had to settle other lawsuits that are eerily similar to this. They’ve settled with people who had the resources and the stamina to take the matter to Court. That’s public information. What is not public is how many people with valid complaints gave up. We also don’t know how many didn’t even bother to complain, knowing that nothing good would come of it?

There is a pattern here, or perhaps a few. If you read the cases, you can see in each one that with just a bit of good judgment and a bit of leadership courage, these matters could have been handled effectively at little or no cost. People wouldn’t have been troubled and the campus wouldn’t have done damage to itself.  

What seems to be the problem?

Update:  this case settled later in 2011.  Corral dropped his complaint and retired,  or something.  

See:  "When Leadership Fails" for an account of another,  similar case at Sac State.