CSU San Marcos / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

In one of his many interactions with students that California State University San Marcos officials reviewed, Dr. Chetan Kumar told a woman in his class, “I could get fired for this but you are so beautiful.”

He was right.

In an investigative report obtained by Voice of San Diego through a Public Records Act request, officials at the school found Kumar sexually harassed his former teacher’s aide and acted unprofessionally with three other students during the 2019 fall semester. He complimented their looks. He texted and emailed them to ask them out to coffee, dinner or beach walks. He hugged three of them. He offered to console three of them when they were feeling down. He pressured two of them into closed-door meetings in his office. He asked two of them about their sex lives. All of the women told investigators they felt he was seeking out a romantic or sexual relationship.

Officials determined that the incidents violated school policies and state education code. In November, the university told Kumar he would be fired on those grounds.

But the employee union that represents faculty members in the CSU system quickly appealed, and university officials ultimately agreed to settle the case if Kumar agreed to drop the appeal and stop talking to the women who complained.

Kumar will teach two classes at CSU San Marcos in the fall.

‘I Could Get Fired for This … ’

In one case, investigators not only concluded that Kumar’s conduct was “unwelcome, sexual in nature, and sufficiently severe, persistent or pervasive,” but also that it could have limited the student’s ability “to participate in or benefit from the services, activities, or opportunities offered by the university.”

The woman, who was in Kumar’s class in fall 2019 and previously his teacher’s aide, told investigators that after she told Kumar her engagement recently ended, Kumar said that they “should get together to cry on each other’s shoulders.” The following day, Kumar emailed her inviting her to coffee, and they planned to meet. She canceled those plans, but Kumar repeatedly insisted that they reschedule, and he texted her numerous invitations to meet up. She said the texts seemed to be romantic in nature, and even though she didn’t want to meet with him, she ultimately agreed. At the meeting, he complimented her on her personality and appearance, asked her if she had a boyfriend, told her about his own relationship problems, asked her if she wanted to surf with him and meet his kids, put his hand on hers, hugged her and asked to see her again. She said he told her that she could use notecards on a class presentation even though he didn’t normally allow it. Kumar also asked her if she had “random fucks” after the end of her engagement, told her that she was “beautiful” and “his type,” she told investigators.

She said during the conversation that Kumar even mentioned, “I could get fired for this but you are so beautiful,” “I could get fired for this, but you are the type that I like” and “I could get fired for this, but I am available if you need me, I don’t care about your boyfriend, I’m here if you need me.”

After the meeting, he sent her photos of sunsets and selfies of him at the beach in a wetsuit and texted her with compliments and a request to go on a walk on the beach. She didn’t reply, but he continued to text her until she asked him to stop to keep their relationship “purely professional,” records show.

Kumar told investigators that he didn’t want a romantic or sexual relationship or have any inappropriate physical contact with the student and his only intention was to mentor her. He said the hug and compliments were friendly. He said he didn’t remember using the words “random fuck” but remembers using the words “random hook ups.” At one point, he told investigators he’d had similar conversations with students about their sex lives before. Later, he clarified that he’s talked to students about their relationships when they brought it up as a reason they missed class or did poorly on an assignment, but had never spoken to a student regarding sex, records show.

University investigators found the student credible, and substantiated her claims.

Three other students came forward with similar allegations that semester.

They told investigators that Kumar made them feel uncomfortable, and suggested he wanted a romantic relationship with them. He hugged them for too long, pressured them into private meetings in his office and made unwanted compliments about their appearance, records show. In each case, investigators at the university found Kumar’s interactions with the women were “unprofessional” but not “sexual.”

In one case, a student in Kumar’s class told investigators that during a class break, Kumar invited her to his office. She agreed, assuming there was an academic reason for his request. But in the office, Kumar asked her a series of personal questions. She said Kumar brought her a plate of fruit and crackers, closed the door, complimented her on her physical appearance and hugged her. On five separate occasions after that, Kumar attempted to schedule another meeting. She declined each request. One day, Kumar announced to the class that she would be helping him carry papers back to his office after class ended. She told investigators she felt a tremendous amount of pressure to go to his office, and she left class during a break to avoid going.

In another case, a student in Kumar’s class said Kumar invited her to his office under the false pretense of discussing her midterm grade, records show. Once they were alone in his office, he hugged her twice, with his hands placed low on her back, slowly and intimately caressed her fingernails while repeatedly asking her “how she got them so perfect,” and suggested they go out to eat, she said. He asked for her phone number and if she was single, she said. She told investigators it felt like he was attempting to start a romantic or sexual relationship with her.

In a third case, a student said she met with Kumar is his office because he told her he wanted to discuss her class project. But when she got to his office, he complimented her eyes multiple times (once within the context of offering to write her a letter of recommendation) and suggested they go to dinner together. She said after that, Kumar sent her inappropriate text messages including a photo of him at the beach in a wetsuit, which she viewed to be sexual or romantic, records show.

Kumar told investigators that his interactions with all three students were friendly, not sexual in nature, and consistent with how he engaged with other students. He said the women misinterpreted his friendly gestures as sexual and raised the possibility of implicit bias against him as a person of color, records show. Kumar also speculated that the women reported the interactions because they were unhappy with their grades in his class. Investigators found in each case that it was improbable that any of them reported being uncomfortable around him because they were unhappy with their grades, records show.

Kumar did not respond to an interview request for this story. Kumar, who was hired in 2005, has tenure at the school, a university spokesperson confirmed. Tenure is a status meant to protect academics from being targeted for their research or viewpoints but doesn’t offer immunity from specific offenses.

The women pushed back against Kumar’s characterizations.

One woman told investigators that Kumar, as a professor, should know what conduct is appropriate around a student. She told investigators his actions while in a position of authority, not his racial or cultural identity, are what made her uncomfortable, records show.

University investigators found the students credible, and substantiated claims that Kumar acted unprofessionally, but determined his actions weren’t “sexual.”

Buying Peace

After investigators found Kumar’s interactions with the women violated university policy and went through a year-long dismissal process, the university sent Kumar a letter in November 2020 telling him they were going to dismiss him from his faculty position. The next day, Kumar and his union, the California Faculty Association, sent a letter to the university appealing that decision. (The California Faculty Association plays a role in representing faculty unit employees in pending disciplinary actions. The union and the university system have a collective bargaining agreement, a legal contract between an employer and a union representing its employees that is the result of an extensive negotiation process between the parties regarding topics such as wages, hours, and terms and conditions of employment.)

Kody Leibowitz, a spokesperson for the California Faculty Association, wrote in an email to Voice of San Diego that the union has a legal duty to represent faculty in enforcing the agreement, to make sure that discipline is just and “meets just cause standards and to make sure that the employer is following its own policies,” procedures and state and federal law. Yet even though officials determined Kumar violated state education code, his union representatives helped him keep his job.

A settlement agreement between the university and Kumar shows that officials agreed to let him keep his faculty job to avoid “the expense, inconvenience and uncertainty of continued proceedings.”

The Markstein Hall building at CSU San Marcos / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

The agreement, signed by both parties in January, shows that instead of firing Kumar, the university agreed to put him on paid leave until Feb. 26 and on an unpaid suspension for three months after that. Kumar agreed to withdraw the appeal and not to contact the students again. 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.

“Sometimes in discipline matters, given all of the facts, something less than termination is in order,” Leibowitz wrote. He wouldn’t comment directly on Kumar’s case.

In the fall, Kumar will teach two classes at the university: one in database management and another in the foundations of management information systems, Margaret Chantung, a spokeswoman for CSU San Marcos, wrote in an email to Voice of San Diego.

Chantung said the university takes all allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct extremely seriously and strives to foster a learning and working environment free of the threat of sexual assault. She said the university took “appropriate action based on the complaints and findings of the investigations.” She said that when the university’s Title IX office received the reports against Kumar, campus officials worked swiftly to contact the students, offer them support and to investigate their claims.

The agreement between Kumar and the university says that the decision is a compromise and not an admission of fault, and its purpose is to “buy peace and to avoid the costs of further proceedings.”

Experts told Voice of San Diego the university may be preserving peace for itself, the California Faculty Association and Kumar, but not for the rest of the university community.

“It sullies an entire community and creates distrust on campus. Everyone suffers when a predator is aided and abetted,” said Terri Miller, president and founder of the group Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct & Exploitation.

Many schools that agree not to fire educators who commit misconduct, or that pay them to quietly resign, frame the decision as a responsible move to protect taxpayer money, because the agreements usually include a stipulation that the employee will drop further legal action.

Billie-Jo Grant, a researcher at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo who’s also a board member of the nonprofit Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct & Exploitation, told me she’s never seen a case where a school system pushed back against a union and she’d be surprised if such cases existed.

“Unions are just so strong that if the union is telling them, ‘This is what’s going to happen,’ the district does what the union says,” she said.

Miller said she supports employee unions, but not when they’re keeping predatory teachers on school campuses. And she encourages students who are fearful or unhappy with Kumar’s return to the university this year to file a complaint with the federal Office of Civil Rights and to name the union that protected him.

“The university evidently tried to do the right thing against the person creating the hostile environment. It’s the union that put him back in,” she said.

Kayla Jiminez was a staff writer for Voice of San Diego. She covered about communities, politics and regional issues in North County as well as school...

Leave a comment

We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.