Don’t underestimate the power of Judy Sakaki, Sonoma State University’s soft-spoken new president. That would be a mistake.
Ask the Ku Klux Klansmen or the notorious basketball coach she stood up to at Fresno State. They saw firsthand that her quiet determination and a sharply honed mission can be formidable weapons. Sakaki doesn’t believe that strength and compassion are mutually exclusive.
Now in her sixth month at SSU, Sakaki, 63, has quickly made it clear that she is there to serve its 9,400 students and the faculty who teach them, even if it involves taking on a few sacred cows.
She has quickly pressed her stamp on the school, canceling one of the flagship construction projects launched by her predecessor, creating a new temporary cabinet of her own hand-picked advisors and announcing her intent to reverse a trend established during the previous administration of replacing full-time faculty with part-timers.
Those who know Sakaki are not the least bit surprised. She comes from a working-class, Japanese-American family who lost everything in the World War II internment camps. She is the first in her family to go to college and has made it her mission throughout her career to make college accessible to everyone.
“You wouldn’t automatically see her as a firebrand. But when you look at the arc of her life, she’s never wavered, never taken the easy route and has always worked for people who need help and deserve help,” said longtime friend Patrick Hayashi, who teamed with Sakaki in 1987 to create the advocacy group Asian Pacific Americans in Higher Education after UC Berkeley was accused of using illegal racial quotas to suppress Asian-American admission.
College life changing
The importance of a mentor is a lesson that Sakaki learned early.
When a high school counselor told a teenage Sakaki that she would be “really good in retail sales,” she trotted off to J.J. Newberry’s in downtown Oakland to get started on her career. Through a vocational education program at Skyline High, the daughter of a truck mechanic would gain work experience at the big five-and-dime at Broadway and Telegraph Avenue.
“I was very dutiful doing the work, lining up things. But one evening I started looking around. And it hit me. I looked into the faces of my co-workers. And they were all women of color in their 40s and 50s and 60s. And they would tell their stories to me. I started thinking, ‘There must be more.’ ”
An educational recruiter at school planted the seed that a young girl who spent her early years in a rough, multi-ethnic neighborhood in East Oakland could consider going to college in the early 1970s, a time when career expectations for women, particularly minority women, were not high.
“That’s when my passions started about what college can do to change a young person’s life,” said Sakaki, who credits that recruiter with redirecting her from a dead end and setting her on an upward path that culminated in her appointment earlier this year as SSU’s president.
“It doesn’t just change your life,” she said of a college education. “It changes your family’s life. It changes your community’s life, and it changes society as a whole.”
Sakaki would make that same discovery — “there must be more” — many times as she steadily scaled the ladder in higher education, beginning as an undergraduate in human development at Hayward State (now Cal State East Bay) and carrying on through two more degrees and ever more demanding administrative appointments within the California State University and the University of California systems. After lower-level management jobs at Hayward State, she moved up into high-level university administration, first as a vice president at Fresno State, the vice chancellor at UC Davis and by 2006, vice president for student affairs for the entire University of California system, working under the steely hand of President Janet Napolitano, with whom she developed a strong relationship professionally and personally
With her appointment to the top job at SSU, Sakaki became the first Japanese-American woman in the country to head up a four-year college or university and the second woman to serve as president of SSU.
At each rung in her rise, Sakai was coaxed to the next level by a supporter who saw something greater behind her modest reserve than she might have seen in herself. Along the way she made a practice of reaching down to those just behind her.
Sakaki is quick to acknowledge that her career success, propelled by a quiet persistence and what her associates describe as a gift for using reason rather than force to bring people around to her agenda, is also the result of many helping hands. And it has given rise to a mantra that defines her educational ethos: “Each one, teach one.”
“You think about the power one person can have on another person, and that is the message I am telling the staff here,” she said. “Each one of us can have an impact on someone, and you don’t even know it.”
Still early in her tenure at SSU, Sakaki’s promised collaborative approach to leadership and a student-centered agenda is taking shape.
“She’s a diplomat. She’s very sensitive to people and extremely hardworking. She finds out what she needs to know, prepares and studies issues and talks to people, and gently coaxes people to move forward. She’s not imposing her views. She’s doing due diligence and leading,” said Jeri Echeverria, a former colleague from Fresno who Sakaki coaxed out of retirement to be her interim provost and vice president for academic affairs.
Focus on students, faculty
Out of the gate, Sakaki declared her goal to shift the university’s focus from facilities to students and the faculty who teach them. As a CSU graduate, her intent is not to make SSU elite but, instead, more accessible to “every possible student, because every student has the potential and there are so many students in this region that could really do well here.”
Her predecessor, Ruben Armiñana, engineered an aggressive capital projects agenda that dramatically transformed the face of the school, with the $145 million Green Music Center his crowning legacy. His priorities also led to bitter divisions with the faculty and a vote of no confidence.
During Armiñana’s 24-year run as president, SSU grew from a commuter school attracting only a third of its student body from outside the area to a destination campus with three-quarters of its students coming from beyond the region. Under his watch, the campus also gained a new $65 million student center, a recreation center, a new library and several cushy new on-campus housing villages, amenities Armiñana argued were key to his vision of attracting top students and turning SSU into a “Public Ivy.”
One of Sakaki’s early decisions was to pull the plug on long-held plans to construct an outdoor performance pavilion at the Green Music Center after deciding the money would be better spent on academic programs and the needs of students and faculty. It was a bold action, something she describes as her most important and “difficult” decision so far.
“To me, that was a decision about her focus on priorities,” said Bill Silver, dean of the School of Business and Economics and an expert in organizational and business leadership. “She declared from the beginning her priority is for students.”
Sakaki immediately established her turf. She announced the retirement of Larry Furukawa-Schlereth, Armiñana’s powerful vice president of administration and finance who also served as director of the Green Music Center. Neither Furukawa-Schlereth nor Armiñana returned telephone calls seeking comment.
Two other key members of Armiñana’s team retired shortly before her arrival. Sakaki replaced them with her own interim “A-Team” of high-level cabinet members, all former CSU and UC colleagues. It includes a key mentor, former Fresno State President John Welty, who serves as a special advisor on the Green Music Center.
They all will serve on an interim basis while she searches for the best candidates to permanently fill the posts. Sakaki reasoned that a temporary brain trust with so much experience but no personal investment in the outcome could take an unbiased look at the university and come up with improvements and efficiencies.
Collegiate rock star
Sakaki got the attention of faculty a month after she arrived when she announced at her first public address the intention to hire more full-time, tenure-track instructors. She followed with other key parts of her agenda — examine ways to redirect money to services that directly impact students; draw in more first-generation students; make it easier for students to access the support and the classes they need to graduate; and to make the Green Music Center a more central part of campus life rather than simply a high-end entertainment venue, even moving graduation ceremonies into the center’s Weill Hall.
An often repeated observation among students and faculty is that Sakaki is “a breath of fresh air.”
Until now, she has served almost exclusively in Student Affairs, the division that provides student support services for everything from health, counseling and extracurricular activities to student housing, recruitment, financial aid and athletics.
Some students tend to see the new president as something of a collegiate rock star. Her face flapped on banners in welcome when they arrived for the semester, and she mingled among them for “Move In” and the “Big Nite” carnival. Many clamber for selfies with her, and she gamely obliges.
“I love her, and I really think the majority of students really, really love her,” said Student Body President Emily Hinton, a junior who described Armiñana as kind but Sakaki more accessible. “We’re seeing a definite culture change on campus.”
Hinton said when she brought the new president a student body resolution asking for more library access during finals — students were crammed shoulder to shoulder on the first floor and had to exit at 9 p.m. — it didn’t stall in the bureaucracy. Sakaki immediately ran it past her cabinet and issued an order to open up the second floor and keep the library open 24 hours during crunch time, calling it “a no brainer.”
“We’re trying to help students graduate,” she said.
Sakaki is rolling out her optimistic vision at a financially critical time that won’t make her goals easy. California’s public university systems have suffered years of state funding cuts, dropping from $9,363 to $7,916 per student between 2000 and 2014. Trustees are now weighing a $270 tuition hike to deal with a budget shortfall that led the system to turn away more than 30,000 eligible applicants this fall, according to Chancellor Timothy White.
Sakaki said a tuition hike is “the last resort.” She noted that while financial aid would cover the increase for the neediest, those families in the middle who make slightly too much to qualify might feel it the most. She said her mission is to make sure it doesn’t discourage anyone from finishing.
“What we’re looking at on the operational side of the university is, are we as lean as we can possibly be?” she said, adding that her team will be looking for more efficiencies.
Wary faculty are watching to see how those challenges impact her promise to increase the number of full-time professors, reversing a long trend toward filling posts with part-time and adjunct instructors. Two decades ago, nearly 70 percent of the faculty at SSU was permanent. Today, only 242 — or 39 percent — of the 619 faculty members are on the tenure track, a practice one professor describes as “educating students on the cheap.”
The shift has reduced job opportunities and increased the workload of tenured faculty, said Elaine Newman, a professor of math and statistics and SSU chapter president of the California Faculty Association.
“I think there is a hopeful feeling among faculty that the tone of this administration is different, more focused on shared governance,” she said.
Nonetheless, some observers couch their optimism with a wait-and-see attitude.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” said Catherine Nelson, a political science professor who represents SSU on the statewide Academic Senate, “but I’m not of the camp that thinks everything is going to be great because we have a new president and she has a more open attitude. I’m not trying to heap praise on her. But her perspective is fresh and different and comes out of a student affairs environment where she was more in tune with issues that affected students directly.”
Cheering Sea Wolves
Sakaki has spent her first four months packing her schedule with events, appearances, meetings and one-on-ones with every department, organization and interest group on campus, and is now venturing out into the community as a cheerleader for all things “Sea Wolf.”
When her old Camry hybrid died, she ordered a replacement in “Sea Wolf Blue.” She takes to the stage at every performance at the Green Music Center to introduce headliners, from “Daily Show” host Trevor Noah to cellist Yo-Yo Ma and recently accepted a challenge to narrate composer Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait” with the University’s Wind Ensemble.
“I’m up for anything, especially for students,” said Sakaki, who at Davis was persuaded to engage in a cow-milking contest.
In her dark suits and low-heeled pumps, she’s become a familiar part of the SSU scene. Looking to all sides while walking the paths, she says, “Hello. How are you?” and “Have a good day” to everyone she passes, from students to groundskeepers behind the wheel of maintenance vehicles.
She’s a hugger, whether it’s office colleagues or Lobo, the blue-costumed Sea Wolf mascot. At events she works the crowd, always on the move, walking up with an extended hand again and again. She constantly invites ideas and feedback.
As she makes her way through the food court called “The Kitchens,” where she sometimes grabs a bite, a young Asian-American student asks if he can call her “Auntie Judy.”
“You can call me Auntie,” she says, later explaining, “In the Asian culture, if there is an older person you respect, you call them Auntie.”
Sakaki has launched a program of “Walk and Talks,” inviting students, staff or faculty to sign up for a 30-minute stroll on campus with the president to chat about what’s on their minds. It’s her way of shoehorning more face time as well as exercise into an already jammed schedule. Her day routinely ends long after midnight with homework or personal business, a bruising schedule she adopted during the 12 years she spent working on her Ph.D.
A self-confessed sentimentalist, she saves family treasures like the suitcase her grandfather brought with him when he emigrated from Japan and a button her mother, Masako, made from peach seeds she found at the Topaz Japanese Internment Camp in the high desert of Utah, where the family was incarcerated during World War II.
Sakaki frequently shares her family story, drawing inspiration from their strength and perseverance. Both grandmothers were “picture brides,” a common practice in the early 1900s, when young Asian women set off for the U.S. and Hawaii to marry men selected by their parents using photographs only.
“My grandmother said she went to the boat dock to see her older sister off, and at the last minute her sister got scared and said, ‘Please, you go instead.’ It was right when the boat was pulling away. My grandmother got on the boat with her sister’s suitcase. She didn’t even have her own clothes.”
Her families on both sides left everything behind when they were abruptly sent off to camps, she said, enduring a harsh life with few creature comforts in bleak overcrowded barracks.
“I didn’t know anything about internment camps. It wasn’t in the school books. My parents never spoke about it. I think I was in middle school, and I heard someone make reference to the Japanese going to camp. The only experience I had was going to summer camp. So I came home one night and said to my parents at dinner, ‘Someone at school said the Japanese went to camp.’ My father’s face just changed. My mother shushed me, and we sat in silence the rest of the dinner. I’ll never forget that dinner because it brought up such hurt and hard feelings.
“That experience was deeply embedded in the psyche of how we were raised,” she said, along with her elders’ adherence to the Japanese philosophy of “shikata ga nai,” which loosely means accepting what can’t be changed and making the best of it.
“What struck me about my grandmother is no matter what happened she had this very positive, optimistic view. Whenever I have an experience that is difficult or challenging or that people don’t understand, I think, ‘Oh, my grandmother.’ ”
In 2009, while working as vice president of student affairs for the UC system, Sakaki spearheaded a task force to award honorary degrees to some 700 Japanese-Americans who were forced to drop out of UC schools when they were sent to relocation camps.
UC had a longstanding policy against awarding honorary degrees to anyone, so it wasn’t a quick and easy sell to regents, said longtime friend Hayashi, who was born at the same Utah camp where her family was incarcerated.
“She was opposed every step of the way. People thought it was a long time ago and it would start a slippery slope of honorary degrees,” said Hayashi. “But she developed strong arguments and kept pushing, and finally built up the political support to get it approved. She did a remarkable thing.”
Sakaki attended every ceremony.
As vice president for student affairs at Fresno State, she inspired awe for standing up to the legendary NCAA basketball coach Jerry “Tark the Shark” Tarkanian, a pugnacious, unyielding man given to chewing on towels during games. When she found out that athletes accused of misconduct were disciplined by their coaches rather than through the Student Affairs Office, like every other student, she went to then-president Welty and drew a line in the sand. Either her office took control of all student discipline or she would step down. Welty advised her first to pray.
Then she went to all the coaches, including Tarkanian, and politely but firmly asked for cooperation with her new policy and got it. “I just held my ground. I knew it was the right thing,” she said. “In your core, when you know something is right, it gives you the strength to stick by it.”
Her greatest challenge came in 1997, when a young African-American student, Malcolm Boyd, was beaten with a lead pipe outside an off-campus frat party. The school had no police chief at the time. Welty put Sakaki in charge.
“One of the toughest things I’ve ever had to do is meet (Boyd’s) parents in the intensive care unit and apologize for what happened to their son. He could have been my son, or anyone’s son.”
It turned out the beating was done by two young white supremacists.
“Because I was the person identified in the newspaper as being in charge, the KKK called me on my office phone and left the most awful hate I’ve ever heard in my life,” she said, some directed at her personally as an Asian-American. “It shook me to the core.”
The Klan demanded permission to demonstrate on campus. Told that free speech rules required her to allow it, and that she could control only the rally’s time and place, she gave them the emptiest time possible at 5 p.m. Saturday and arranged to bus interested students off site to a tolerance teach-in while white-robed Klansmen rode in on horses.
“I made it through the whole week, and on the weekends I just needed to take a drive to the mountains and sit there and cry,” she remembered. “To weep for why there is such hate and how we as a society had gotten to that place. ... As an administrator, you have these kinds of experiences that change you and give you a passion for what you do. It’s why I’m so committed to diversity and making sure first-generation college students have a chance.”
Arranged own wedding
Sakaki packs a lot into her day, regularly working from 8 a.m. to midnight, leaving little time for her personal life. Using characteristic time efficiency, since arriving in July she has managed to find a house, buy a new car and get married. All were possible because she is disinclined to dither over quotidian matters.
With only a couple of weekends to look, she bought a house in Fountaingrove big enough for the entertaining demanded of a university president, filled the walls with original art donated to SSU by the Benziger wine family that was otherwise going into storage and threw a welcoming party for new faculty.
She also arranged her own wedding in September and held it in the garden of her new home. She shopped for her own wedding ring online at 2 a.m. Wearing a modern dress made from vintage purple kimono fabric that had been in her family for many years, Sakaki married Patrick McCallum, an educational consultant and lobbyist whose clients include many community colleges.
The pair both “push it,” as her old friend, Frank Chong, president of Santa Rosa Junior College said, putting in long hours and taking work home. But when they get the time, they share a love of hiking and getting outdoors.
Sakaki has two grown sons from a previous marriage. Her youngest, Gary Wong, 32, is a high school English teacher in Sacramento with two small sons. Her oldest, Dennis Wong, 35, is a doctor with a 4-year-old daughter. Sakaki makes family a priority in what extra time she has, doting on her three grandchildren. Her cousin, Sherry Hirota of Oakland, said Sakaki is the one who brings people together, hosting the family’s traditional New Year’s Day celebration.
At SSU, she’s settling in. She removed the dark wood bookshelves that marked Armiñana’s space, lightening up the president’s office with white walls and artwork. People who come to her office for meetings often are served tea out of a vintage Japanese tea set.
Sakaki’s closest friends all say the same thing about her: that whatever actions she takes, it’s out of a single-minded goal to get more students to dream big and go to college, and back that with the support they need to succeed. In July, during her third week on the job, she hosted 500 disadvantaged and minority kids from a Sacramento after-school program run by a friend. She enlisted the faculty and staff to engage them in hands-on activities to excite them about education.
“I didn’t want them to just get a tour of the buildings,” she said, pulling out a large pile of thank-you cards they sent. “I wanted them to have an experience they will never forget because that’s how we’re going to open their eyes to different possibilities. That’s how we’re going to change things, to get kids to think, ‘I can go to college.’ ”
You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 707-521-5204 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @megmcconahey.