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CSU employee overseeing sexual misconduct and discrimination cases claims retaliation

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A former San Francisco State University employee who oversaw the handling of sexual misconduct and discrimination cases alleged that the campus president and an official with the state university system tried to interfere with an investigation into harassment allegations against a professor and said that the school failed to properly investigate hundreds of claims of wrongdoing.

In a 20-page complaint filed Wednesday against the campus and the California State University system, Heather Borlase said that she was terminated last summer after she launched an investigation into multiple Muslim students’ complaints that a professor showed a drawing of the prophet Muhammad in his Islamic studies class without warning or reason.

Borlase alleged that San Francisco State President Lynn Mahoney and CSU Vice Chancellor of Human Resources Leora Freedman believed the professor’s actions were protected under academic freedom and asked Borlase to halt the investigation. But Borlase said that a probe was necessary to determine whether the professor’s actions constituted religious harassment. Visual depictions of Muhammad are considered offensive for many Muslims.

Freedman wanted to offer time “for the parties to reach an informal resolution,” according to the complaint, and took the case from Borlase in April 2023. Roughly a week later, after the case faced public criticism by an outside advocacy group, Borlase said she was placed on administrative leave and learned months later that her job would not be reinstated. According to the complaint, she was told the decision was “in the best interest of the university.”

The university said that “the change wasn’t made to influence the outcome of any investigation.”

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“Like all CSU campuses, S.F. State takes seriously its responsibility to provide students and employees a safe learning and working environment,” director of communications Bobby King said. “Different leadership was desired to lead work in the department, which was already happening to improve processes and outcomes.”

Borlase claimed that she inherited more than 400 unresolved cases of harassment, misconduct, and discrimination when she started in 2021 and had received pushback from university officials who “expressed concern about the exposure” when she tried to address the reports.

According to the complaint, the university “encouraged her to only work on the most egregious cases involving current students or faculty. Ms. Borlase insisted on bringing all cases into compliance.”

In one instance, an investigation into sexual harassment allegations against a professor found that people were dissuaded from bringing such claims forward. But Borlase said she was discouraged from taking corrective action that could put the university “in a negative light,” the complaint said.

In another instance, an investigation found that a campus administrator had racially harassed an employee, calling them “a runaway slave.” According to the complaint, Borlase was asked to “downplay the university’s failure to act when concerns … were first raised.”

“S.F. State’s failure to timely respond to student and staff complaints, its interference with the integrity of investigations, and scapegoating and terminating Ms. Borlase cannot be condoned,” said Katherine Smith, one of the attorneys representing Borlase.

Borlase’s concerns coincided with CSU’s examination of its policies around Title IX — the federal ban on sex discrimination — following multiple accounts of inconsistencies over how university officials handled complaints of sexual misconduct and retaliation. On several of CSU’s 23 campuses from San Diego State University to California State University Maritime Academy, Times investigations found that students and employees lacked confidence in the Title IX process and often feared that their issues would be ignored. A Times analysis of complaints from the 2021-2022 school year found that about 3% of more than 2,600 reports of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct were formally investigated.

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“It is critical for students to know it is safe to come forward and when they do, their complaints will be fairly investigated,” said Wendy Musell, another attorney for Borlase.

Shortly before Borlase’s dismissal last year, the Cozen O’Connor law firm shared a report with CSU’s Board of Trustees and the university community that found flaws in how CSU campuses collect data, widespread distrust by students and employees in how wrongdoing is addressed, and a low number of investigations.

A state audit found similar breakdowns. And in a push for broader accountability, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law that would require the CSU system to disclose the outcome of sexual harassment cases and investigations.

The CSU is the largest four-year public university system in the nation. It has previously said that it will make changes to its handling of complaints and is hiring additional staff to improve its investigative process.

“Transforming culture is not easy or quick. It takes time and significant resources,” Board Chair Wenda Fong told The Times last year.

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Black couple overcomes racism to rent to Chinese family, who show gratitude by paying rent.

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Decades ago, in the early 1900s, racism and discriminatory housing practices plagued the town of Coronado, barring many individuals from living in certain neighborhoods based on their race. In the midst of this oppressive era, an inspiring story of resilience and generosity unfolded between two families — the Thompsons, a Black couple, and the Dongs, a Chinese family.

Gus and Emma Thompson, who were among the few Black families to own property in Coronado before racial restrictions took hold, defied the norms of the time by renting their house to the Dong family. Lloyd Dong Sr., a Chinese immigrant, and his wife found solace in the Thompsons’ willingness to offer them a place to call home despite the racist barriers they faced.

Fast forward 85 years later, the sons of Lloyd Dong Sr., Ron Dong, and Lloyd Dong Jr., have decided to pay forward the kindness shown to their family by donating $5 million from the sale of the house they eventually owned to San Diego State University’s Black Resource Center. This generous gift will help expand scholarships for Black students and fund renovations at the center, creating a lasting impact on the community.

Exterior view of a single-story home

The Dongs’ family house in Coronado, originally the home of the Thompsons.

(Courtesy of Janice Dong)

This heartwarming tale of intergenerational gratitude highlights the resilience and spirit of unity that transcends racial boundaries. Brandon Gamble, the director of the Black Resource Center, expressed the profound impact of this donation on the community, emphasizing the importance of stories that challenge racism and foster a sense of camaraderie.

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Reflecting on the legacy of his father and the Thompsons, Ron Dong shared, “That was the big plus for our family, because it has made all the difference for us.” The intertwined histories of the Thompson and Dong families serve as a testament to the power of empathy and solidarity in the face of adversity.

Gus Thompson’s journey from slavery to becoming a respected community leader in Coronado, coupled with Emma Thompson’s advocacy for civil rights, exemplifies the resilience and determination of marginalized communities to thrive in the face of oppression.

Gus Thompson in 1947.

Gus Thompson in 1947.

(Norman Baynard Collection / San Diego History Center)

The legacy of allyship and support exemplified by the Thompsons extends to their willingness to assist Asian Americans facing similar discriminatory practices. This act of solidarity echoes the sentiment that in times of oppression, helping others regardless of race is not just a gesture but a necessity.

As the Dong family embraced their new home in Coronado, overcoming discrimination and forging their path to homeownership, they carried forward the spirit of resilience and unity shown to them by the Thompsons. The bond between these two families serves as a beacon of hope and inspiration in a society marred with division and prejudice.

The Hotel del Coronado, a Victorian-style beach resort outside San Diego, and tent city on the beach, 1908.

The Hotel del Coronado, a Victorian-style beach resort outside San Diego, and a tent city on the beach, 1908.

(Smith Collection / Gado / Getty Images)

The resilience and determination displayed by the Dong family in the face of discrimination, coupled with their unwavering commitment to education and community upliftment, exemplify the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. The decision to give back to the community through education underscores the transformative power of generosity and empathy in creating a more inclusive and equitable society.

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As the Dongs’ generous donation paves the way for future generations to access educational opportunities and resources, their story serves as a beacon of hope and inspiration for all who strive to overcome adversity and champion unity in the face of division.

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