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Former UC investigator alleges he was fired for challenging changes in critical review of UCSD chancellor

Pradeep Khosla's management style as UC San Diego chancellor was the subject of an investigation.
(The San Diego Union-Tribune )

John Torres, former director of investigations, says in a lawsuit that the system tried to ‘protect’ Pradeep Khosla on issues involving gender discrimination and bullying.

The former director of investigations for the University of California alleges in a lawsuit that he was fired for challenging major changes to a critical review of the management style of UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep Khosla.

John Torres filed the lawsuit in Alameda County Superior Court in October and names the University of California Board of Regents and Alexander Bustamante, a senior vice president in the UC Office of the President, as defendants.

The suit arose from an investigation that the president’s office launched in 2018 after it received a whistleblower complaint against Khosla. Nine current and former UCSD employees later told The San Diego Union-Tribune that an investigator asked them whether the chancellor had exhibited bullying behavior toward employees of the La Jolla campus.

He’s overseen $2.5 billion in construction of new buildings in the past five years.

Torres says in his lawsuit that he participated in the investigation. He claims the regents and Bustamante “took steps to ‘protect’ the UCSD chancellor by both limiting the scope of the investigation to not investigate gender discrimination allegations and by removing findings submitted by the investigator regarding discrimination, bullying, alcohol use and other inappropriate and illegal behavior by Chancellor Khosla.”

The lawsuit also claims that UC President Michael Drake commissioned a review of the whistleblower case after learning that gender discrimination allegations had not been investigated.

Torres says he told University of California officials that “improper government activity” had occurred during the 2018 investigation, including numerous statements that Bustamante made to him about “protecting” Khosla.

Torres also says he reported that “Bustamante failed to disclose information regarding alcohol use and bullying in a letter he submitted to [then-] UC President Janet Napolitano.”

The lawsuit claims system officials subsequently subjected Torres to conduct that “was designed to harass, exclude, humiliate, intimidate and retaliate” against him.

Torres left UC on March 16, 2021, through a “constructive termination,” according to the lawsuit.

The term, as defined by the U.S. Department of Labor, refers to “when a worker’s resignation or retirement may be found not to be voluntary because the employer has created a hostile or intolerable work environment or has applied other forms of pressure or coercion which forced the employee to quit or resign.”

The UC Office of the President, based in Oakland, said in a statement to the Union-Tribune that “we believe the complaint and the associated allegations to be without merit and fully expect the facts of the case to demonstrate that no retaliation took place and that there is no evidence that improper influence was exerted in previous investigations.”

“The university has full faith and confidence in both our office of Ethics, Compliance and Audit Services and the San Diego campus leadership,” the statement added.

Khosla’s office said in statement that “we do not comment on pending/current litigation but can clarify that this pertains to a dispute between a former UC Office of the President employee and the UC Office of the President.”

Torres’ attorney, Mark Quigley, did not respond to a request for comment.

Khosla became chancellor of UCSD in 2012. He was recruited from Carnegie Mellon University, an elite private research school in Pittsburgh. UC officials said they were impressed by his ability to raise private donations and get things done.

Khosla got off to a quick start in La Jolla, initiating a private fundraising campaign that eventually collected more than $3 billion. He also began building the school’s enrollment, which has risen by more than 14,000 since he arrived. And he’s in the midst of a construction campaign that eventually will cost more than $10 billion.

But some faculty and staff began to complain about his management style, saying privately that Khosla could be confrontational and overly blunt.

The controversy surfaced publicly in late 2018 when three former UCSD administrators told the Union-Tribune that a UC investigator had asked them whether Khosla had exhibited bullying behavior toward university staff.

They also said the investigator asked whether any of the chancellor’s current or former staff members had engaged in bullying.

In late 2018 and early 2019, the Union-Tribune communicated with more than 50 current and former faculty, staff and administrators and received differing viewpoints about the chancellor.

Some described him as warm, passionate and visionary. Others said they found him at times to be brusque and confrontational.

The University of California never disclosed the outcome of its 2018 investigation. ◆