Arizona State stays mum on outcome of its investigation of workplace climate

An informally resolved investigation into Carlos Castillo-Chavez's conduct bars the public from any findings

Editor's Note: This story was published/adapted with permission from Science. 

One year after filing a complaint against a prominent mathematics professor that contributed to his departure (see Acclaimed mentor of minority mathematicians relied on tough love—but some say he went too far), Maria Martinez still doesn’t know what Arizona State University (ASU) learned from its investigation into the behavior of Carlos Castillo-Chavez.

Martinez, a doctoral student in the applied mathematics and life and social sciences program (AMLSS), had hoped that her allegations of a hostile work environment would trigger a broader discussion about the status of all ASU graduate students. But instead, the university found a way to deal with her complaint without writing up a report or making any information available to the public.

READ MORE: Acclaimed mentor of minority mathematicians relied on tough love—but some say he went too far

Martinez was pleasantly surprised when the university’s Office of Equity and Inclusion took less than 2 weeks to open an inquiry into her 23 April 2019 complaint to ASU president Michael Crow. ASU’s associate general counsel, Becky Herbst, who led the investigation, kept Martinez informed about how it was progressing, including the fact that she ultimately interviewed 17 people familiar with the AMLSS program, which was based at the Simon Levin Mathematical, Computational and Modeling Sciences Center.

Herbst also thanked Martinez for forwarding emails from Castillo-Chavez, who led the center, that indicated he had ignored instructions not to contact Martinez while the investigation was underway. “I have reminded Dr. Castillo-Chavez that he is prohibited from contacting you in any manner,” Herbst wrote Martinez in the midst of the investigation.

On 23 May Herbst told Martinez she planned to write up the results of her investigation and submit it to ASU Provost Mark Searle. Searle would decide whether Castillo-Chavez had violated any ASU policies, Herbst explained. Searle, she added, would also determine “what appropriate responses should be taken.” Before that happened, Herbst said, Martinez would have a chance to respond to what Castillo-Chavez had told her and would receive a copy of the final report.

In late July, Herbst again reached out to Martinez. But the news wasn’t what Martinez was expecting. Instead of seeking additional input for her report, Herbst asked if Martinez would be open to “resolving this matter through the informal process.” Martinez told Herbst she didn’t know what that alternative meant. 

In subsequent emails, Herbst explained that the “informal process” would be a substitute for both the report and the “letter of determination” from the provost spelling out what actions ASU was taking in response to its findings. Agreeing to an informal resolution of her complaint, Herbst told Martinez, would allow the university “to conclude this process more quickly.”

Herbst said that Castillo-Chavez had already agreed to resign immediately from “all his administrative appointments.” In contrast, Martinez says Herbst told her, continuing with the formal process might require a hearing, after which “the university could then decide that it was okay for [Castillo-Chavez] to stay.” 

Martinez wasn’t willing to take that risk. “Even now, I still panic just thinking about it,” she says.

ASU officials have declined to answer any questions about the investigation or how often they use the informal process to resolve complaints. Crow told The State Press in March that “we have about 80 conduct investigations going on at any point in time” and that the university releases a “summary end report” of every investigation. But under ASU policy, any investigation that is resolved through the “informal process” does not require a summary report nor a letter of determination.

Looking back, Martinez now regrets agreeing to an informal resolution of her complaint. “I just wanted to move on, and this was a way to do that,” she says. 

Molly Stellino graduated from ASU this month and served as editor of State Press Magazine. Jeffrey Mervis is a senior correspondent at Science.


Reach the reporters at mrstelli@asu.edu and jmervis@aaas.org or follow @mollystellino and @jeffmervis on Twitter.

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