California State University, Chico, is in turmoil over how administrators dealt with a professor accused of having sex with a graduate student and then threatening to kill two colleagues who reported him.
“I know this past week has been deeply disturbing and unsettling to our students, faculty and staff,” President Gayle E. Hutchinson said in a campus memo last week, speaking to widespread concern over the case. “I would like to invite you to join me as we turn our attention to addressing how we can work together to rebuild trust and address campus safety, sexual misconduct and transparency.”
Chico State’s provost, Debra Larson, also announced her immediate resignation last week following an Academic Senate meeting where members debated Larson’s handling of the case. Senators discussed a vote of no confidence in Larson at the special meeting but decided to first ask for an independent investigation into just what happened.
Two Investigations, One Promotion
The professor in question, David Stachura, of the biological sciences department, denied having an inappropriate sexual relationship with the student to university investigators and to Inside Higher Ed. He also said the threats of violence are fabricated. But he entered into a settlement with the university in 2020 suspending him for part of the spring 2021 term. The settlement acknowledges that the inappropriate relationship claims are “disputed” but says that Stachura was found to have violated a university policy on consensual relationships and that he lost his subsequent appeal.
Chico State found Stachura had violated the consensual relationships policy, according to university investigation documents first reported by EdSource, as he’d “spent time attacking the credibility of witnesses rather than describing or explaining why he would be alone in his office with (the student) with the lights off, the futon extended into a bed, and with what a witness described as post-coital smells emanating from the room.”
As part of the agreement, Chico State said it would not include the disciplinary action in his personnel file at that time. Stachura agreed to withdraw his request for early promotion to full professor.
Despite his partial suspension in 2021, Chico State named Stachura an “Outstanding Professor” for the academic year.
Then, in August 2021, as Stachura was about to return to teaching full time, Chico State learned that Stachura’s wife had filed a restraining order against him alleging he’d purchased a handgun, a semi-automatic shotgun and hollow-point bullets to shoot two co-workers and himself.
Stachura “was very specific that he bought hollow-point bullets for maximum damage and took the guns to (a shooting) range so he’d know how to shoot them and be accurate,” his wife wrote in court documents first obtained by EdSource. He “believed there was a conspiracy at work. He had many conversations with me about how angry he was about his co-workers for reporting him. He often referred to these women as bitches and couldn’t seem to let go of the fact that they had complained about his behavior.”
The two women in question were presumably two junior colleagues who’d participated in the university’s investigation against him. One reportedly said she’d heard loud sex noises coming from Stachura’s office on multiple occasions. The other said she’d knocked on his office door and that when a shoeless Stachura opened it after a time, a graduate student was sitting there on a futon folded out like a bed. One of the two colleagues also said she saw Stachura kissing the same graduate student in a campus laboratory.
In response to the restraining order request, Stachura reportedly told the court that he’d had a dream about a shooting and bought weapons for home defense only. His wife then filed a copy of a receipt showing that Stachura bought ammunition at a local gun store on Oct. 15, 2020 — the day Chico State denied his appeal in the relationships policy case.
A local judge granted the restraining order. Stachura’s wife’s lawyer informed the two female instructors of the alleged threats against them.
Chico State hired a former federal law enforcement agent from the Threat Assessment Group to review the new allegations against Stachura. According to EdSource, the assessment said that if Stachura “remains angry toward the two professors, it may be appropriate to conclude that (Stachura) does pose an unacceptable risk of violence to the workplace,” warranting termination — lest CSU “perpetuate the risk of potential harm to the two professors who provided evidence against (Stachura) and, potentially, the broader CSU community.”
The assessment noted that Stachura was under family stress and had possibly been previously dishonest with investigators, calling these additional risk factors.
Stachura was put on leave for several weeks during this second investigation. But he ultimately was cleared to return to work.
He was promoted to full professor last academic year, according to his LinkedIn profile.
Following these revelations — and related criticism of Chico State’s handling of both the Stachura investigations — the university suspended Stachura earlier this month for a third time, for 60 days.
Hutchinson and Larson, the president and provost, led a Zoom call last week with hundreds of students and employees to discuss the matter. During that meeting, Betsey Tamietti, a lecturer in biology, said that Stachura had previously spoken to her about going “on a shooting spree,” and warned to not be “become part of the problem.”
Tamietti also said on the call, “I am truly terrified of this man.”
Multiple students told Hutchinson that they felt the university had put them in danger. One said that if Stachura returns too campus, he should work out of the central administration building.
The Chico State chapter of the California Faculty Association, Stachura’s union, separately issued an apology last week for its role in representing Stachura, saying, “We want to make absolutely clear that [the union’s executive] board did not fight hard enough for all members, and in hewing to procedures that are meant to protect due process, we wound up failing our colleagues and community.”
Stachura said via email, “I can tell you this: I was accused of having a consensual relationship with a student. We both denied having a relationship. I did settle with the university, and both the university and I deny any wrongdoing.” Regarding the threats of violence, Stachura said they’re “completely fabricated. My soon-to-be ex wife has created these accusations to get custody of my children. It, as you can imagine, has been an extremely bitter divorce. I have been thoroughly vetted by the police, a workplace violence consultation team, an outside violence consultation team, and the DOJ. I’m not a threat to anyone.”
Asked about Tamietti’s public statement last week that Stachura had threatened her, Stachura called her “the stockroom attendant in the department.” He added, “I don’t want to say too much due to forthcoming litigation, but I can say that nothing she said is true.” (Tamietti is a lecturer who works in the department’s media lab.)
Sean Murphy, university spokesperson, reiterated via email that Stachura was suspended in 2021 due to evidence that he’d violated an executive order on consensual relationships, and that he was placed on administrative leave for 60 days last fall while the university investigated the alleged threats against employees.
Chico State suspended Stachura again on Dec. 9, Murphy said, due to “disruption of programs and operations and concern for the safety of the Chico State community. The president placed him on leave to enable the University to finish the semester without further disruption, and to determine what additional actions may be needed.”
As to when Stachura may be back on campus, Murphy said it’s “premature to speculate on that right now. President Hutchinson has stated that he will not be teaching courses in the spring semester.”
In addition to the outside threat assessment, Murphy said that Chico State’s Campus Violence Consultation Team “conducted a thorough review of the situation before Dr. Stachura was allowed to return to campus in Fall 2021.”
Murphy said the university was previously unaware of Tamietti’s claim that Stachura had spoken to her about violence, and that “allegations relating to threats against employees are always taken seriously. This new information is now under investigation.”
Tamietti was not immediately available for an interview but told Inside Higher Ed, “At the time of the incident I discussed the threats with a few colleagues and later made a full report to the appropriate administrators,” including David Hassenzahl, dean of natural sciences at Chico State. “There should be a record backing my story.”
Hassenzahl did not respond to a request for comment.
Lindsay Briggs, associate professor in the department of public health and health services administration at Chico State and a member of the Chico State faculty union’s executive board, said in an interview that the union assured Stachura had adequate representation in the consensual relationships policy case, but that “ultimately, it was the administration that decided, ‘Let’s have a settlement where we just give him a month or so’s punishment, and then we’ll let him come back to work. Nobody knew about threats of violence. That didn’t come become apparent until his divorce case a year later.”
The California State University System “has a very serious issue with sexual violence and sexual harassment,” Briggs said, noting such high-profile cases as one at Fresno State University that triggered the resignation of former system Chancellor Joseph I. Castro, in February (Castro was accused of mishandling a harassment case when he was president of Fresno State). “So none of this is surprising.”
What is surprising about Stachura’s case, however, Briggs said, “is the workplace violence stuff.”
‘The Shocking Part’
“In this era of mass shootings — and we’re seeing shootings on university campuses — the fact that they just did some threat assessment and said, ‘Oh, he’s fine, he’s definitely not going to shoot up a university,’ and didn’t tell anybody? That is the shocking part.”
Andrew Staples, another university spokesperson, said Sunday that Stachura’s teaching and research projects have been reassigned and alternate advisors have been identified for his students. The university recommended that Stachura voluntarily surrender his firearms to Chico State, and he complied, Staples also said, while swipe card access is being added to the building that houses the biology department.
Gordon Wolfe, professor of biology at Chico State, said that Stachura “started his blatant affair in his office, antagonizing and disturbing the junior women faculty trying to work in neighboring offices, I called him on their behalf and told him he was jeopardizing his career and had to stop immediately. He is a compulsive liar and denied everything.”
Information-sharing surrounding the investigatory process that followed was poor, although somehow Stachura apparently learned who had spoken to investigators about him, based on the alleged threats against them, Wolfe continued.
“I alerted our chair and dean about the potential for bloodshed, which led to Stachura’s suspension and second investigation. Once again, we were interviewed but given no feedback on the process or results. When Stachura was reinstated in October 2021, we were given maybe two days’ notice.” Wolfe said he believed he was the only university employee to have closely followed Stachura’s legal case involving his wife, such as by attending court hearings: “I was very concerned that a decision against him regarding the custody of his children would lead him to take violent action against us, since he has consistently blamed others for his failures and believes in a conspiracy against him.”
Wolfe said he understood that “confidentiality and personnel rules limit what can be shared with faculty, staff and students.” But the administration “failed badly” by not distinguishing between an inappropriate relationship, he said, “and threats of violence against specific faculty, and against the campus at large. Surely public safety overrides privacy, especially in an era where there are campus shootings almost every month. The president has issued statements every time a school shooting occurred, stating the campus has zero tolerance for threats. Imagine how that made us feel, knowing she has worked to cover up what happened here.”