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Former Sonoma State University administrator received $600,000 settlement over retaliation for reporting alleged sexual harassment

The California State University system paid $600,000 in January to a former top Sonoma State University administrator to resolve a dispute related to staff complaints of sexual harassment involving SSU President Judy Sakaki’s husband.|

How to contact the reporters

Kaylee Tornay

707-521-5250, kaylee.tornay@pressdemocrat.com

Martin Espinoza

707-521-5213, martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com

Marisa Endicott

707-521-5470, marisa.endicott@pressdemocrat.com

The California State University system paid $600,000 in January to a former top Sonoma State University administrator to resolve a dispute related to staff complaints of sexual harassment involving SSU President Judy Sakaki’s husband, records obtained by The Press Democrat reveal.

The seven-page settlement and the claim that triggered it show former provost Lisa Vollendorf accused Sakaki of retaliation for reporting sexual harassment complaints by several female Sonoma State employees against Patrick McCallum. He is Sakaki’s husband and a prominent education lobbyist.

Vollendorf in 2018 reported allegations to the California State University executive vice chancellor, “which painted a cohesive picture of harassment” by McCallum, according to Vollendorf’s July 26, 2021, claim.

That claim and the ensuing settlement — signed Jan. 13 by Vollendorf, CSU’s attorney, Sakaki and McCallum — were provided to The Press Democrat on Wednesday morning by the CSU Chancellor’s Office based in Long Beach after a public records request.

The documents do not describe specific behavior or detailed allegations related to McCallum.

But on Wednesday afternoon, university spokesperson Julia Gonzalez said the nature of complaints brought to administrators, “even if they were substantiated, would not likely constitute sexual harassment.”

“(They) involved complaints of touching and conversations that made some individuals uncomfortable,” she said.

Sakaki, in a statement late Wednesday, said she was “surprised and saddened” when she heard of the allegations against her husband.

“Although he denies engaging in any inappropriate behavior, it was important for him and me to learn about these concerns,” her statement read. “There have been no complaints since we were informed of the concerns.”

Sakaki also denied allegations that she retaliated against any employee, calling Vollendorf’s claims “utterly without basis.”

Vollendorf’s complaint says, “Less than three months after Dr. Vollendorf received an exemplary performance evaluation as provost from Sonoma State University President Judy Sakaki in 2018, several women affiliated with SSU approached Dr. Vollendorf with allegations of sexual harassment.

“The allegations — all of which painted a cohesive picture of harassment — were against President Sakaki’s husband, Patrick McCallum, who was an active presence on campus, including attending many SSU-sponsored events attended by employees.”

The claim accused CSU of failing to “follow its own policies related to harassment and discrimination.”

Sexual harassment includes “unwelcome verbal, nonverbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature," according to CSU's definition.

The settlement also accused CSU of “negligently failing to control President Sakaki’s conduct as required” by a 2019 separation agreement she reached with Vollendorf.

McCallum issued a short written statement late Wednesday saying he was proud of his service as a Sonoma State volunteer. “I deny any allegation that I engaged in any wrongful conduct toward anyone,” he said.

Vollendorf declined to comment Wednesday.

“The University takes allegations of sexual harassment very, very seriously,” said Gonzalez, the SSU spokesperson.

“The allegations of any unprofessional conduct by President Sakaki’s spouse were carefully reviewed by the system’s Title IX compliance officer. They concluded that the conduct that was reported would not likely constitute sexual harassment by policy’s standards,” she added.

Title IX is a federal civil rights law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in education.

People interviewed didn’t want to engage in a formal complaint process. Based on that, the Title IX officer conducted no further investigation, Gonzalez said.

According to excerpts from the Title IX investigation shared by Gonzalez, of the four people the compliance officer reached out to, one person declined to be interviewed. One said they hadn’t been harassed by Sakaki’s spouse and didn’t want to make a complaint and another said they hadn’t witnessed harassment.

A fourth person said they did not want a formal investigation but requested that McCallum be talked to about what is considered appropriate behavior.

“As I said, I am not asking for any remedy as I do not think I have been harmed but I am glad to have spoken to you about a situation that has been difficult to negotiate,” the person said, according to an excerpt of the Title IX report shared by Gonzalez.

Vollendorf filed the claim after Sakaki reportedly violated the terms of a 2019 separation agreement that transferred Vollendorf’s employment to the Chancellor’s Office in 2020. She spent a year there before leaving to take a job as interim provost at the University of Northern Colorado.

Vollendorf made her 2018 report to the CSU Chancellor’s Office in line with her responsibilities as a mandated reporter, which, under state law, requires her to come forward with allegations of sexual harassment or sexual abuse by university employees.

The California State University system, then under the leadership of Chancellor Timothy White, conducted its own investigation, which included speaking with Sakaki in April 2019, according to state documents.

Gonzalez, the Sonoma State spokesperson, acknowledged White spoke with Sakaki about the reported concerns regarding her husband.

“(They) discussed the important role and expectations for the president’s spouse, who is technically an official university volunteer and an ambassador for the university.”

In the state records, Vollendorf and her attorney described the interviews as “cursory” and accused CSU officials of failing to follow policies related to workplace harassment and discrimination.

“Immediately upon being spoken to, President Sakaki began a campaign of retaliation against Dr. Vollendorf,” the former provost said in her claim.

That included limiting the scope of Vollendorf’s job responsibilities at Sonoma State and requiring her to undergo “inappropriate and unprofessional therapeutic ‘coaching’ by an untrained therapist.”

Vollendorf said she was “forced to leave her position as SSU provost, rather than continue to be subjected to this hostile and retaliatory behavior. And yet, Sakaki’s retaliation continued.”

Sakaki denied she had retaliated against Vollendorf in her statement.

“Let me be clear: I would not and never have retaliated against any person who raises concerns or questions my decisions,” she said. “The claims of retaliation are utterly without basis. Out of respect for Dr. Vollendorf’s privacy, I do not feel it would be appropriate to comment further.”

Sonoma State agreed to the $600,000 settlement because officials wanted to “avoid the need for costly and protracted litigation,” Gonzalez said. “While CSU denied that there is any wrongdoing, this settlement allowed for resolution without litigation and for both parties to move forward.”

She also addressed any public perception the $600,000 settlement will come from student fees.

“It’s really important that people know that the settlement is not paid from any student tuition or fees,” Gonzalez said. “The university has insurance to cover settlements such as this.”

News of the settlement at Sonoma State comes as the California State University, the nation’s largest four-year college system, deals with the abrupt departure of its top leader amid furor over mismanagement of complaints about staff misconduct.

On the heels of a USA TODAY investigation, former Chancellor Joseph Castro resigned in February amid criticism over accusations that he mishandled sexual abuse and misconduct allegations during his time as president of Fresno State.

Some Sonoma State employees said in recent days the campus has been buzzing with accounts of McCallum’s reported misbehavior and the CSU investigation. News of the sexual harassment claims and settlement come at a time of significant challenge on campus, as the school struggles to rebound from the pandemic’s impact on enrollment.

One faculty member, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution from top administrators, said there has been a vacuum in leadership at Sonoma State, leaving many faculty members feeling “severely demoralized.”

“There are definitely rumors about what’s happening behind the scenes.”

Vollendorf, 53, is set to become president of State University of New York Empire State College later this year.

Before stepping into her current role, Vollendorf spent a year as special adviser for academic planning and operational continuity in the CSU Chancellor's Office.

That move was agreed upon in November 2019, according to the separation agreement negotiated between Vollendorf and Sakaki that was also released to The Press Democrat. Sonoma State paid for Vollendorf’s salary and benefits while she was in that position.

As part of that agreement, both women agreed to make only “respectful, positive and professional” statements about the other’s work.

Vollendorf filed her claim against CSU July 26, 2021, after comments Sakaki made five months earlier.

“Concrete evidence emerged of President Sakaki’s interference with Dr. Vollendorf’s job prospects and defamatory statements about her,” the claim read.

Sakaki, 69, came to Sonoma State University in 2016, after serving as vice president of student affairs in the University of California Office of the President.

She is the seventh president of Sonoma State and was the first Japanese American woman to be president of a four-year university.

Her salary is listed at $324,052, with an additional $60,000 stipend for housing, according to the CSU Executive Summary.

McCallum’s Sacramento-based consulting firm, the McCallum Group, specializes in legislative advocacy and government relations, including higher education lobbying.

Sakaki and McCallum, 68, lost their Fountaingrove home in the 2017 Tubbs fire, barely escaping with their lives. Another 79 students, faculty and staff at Sonoma State were similarly displaced that year.

Sakaki and McCallum relocated to a home in Bennett Valley.

After the 2017 fires, McCallum headed Up From the Ashes, a coalition of residents who lost their homes, which lobbies the state Legislature on issues such as compensation for fire victims.

Reach Staff Writer Kaylee Tornay at 707-521-5250 or kaylee.tornay@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ka_tornay.

Reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @pressreno.

Reach PD Columnist Marisa Endicott at 707-521-5470 or marisa.endicott@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @InYourCornerTPD

How to contact the reporters

Kaylee Tornay

707-521-5250, kaylee.tornay@pressdemocrat.com

Martin Espinoza

707-521-5213, martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com

Marisa Endicott

707-521-5470, marisa.endicott@pressdemocrat.com

Kaylee Tornay

Education, The Press Democrat

Learning is a transformative experience. Beyond that, it’s a right, under the law, for every child in this country. But we also look to local schools to do much more than teach children; they are tasked with feeding them, socializing them and offering skills in leadership and civics. My job is to help you make sense of K-12 education in Sonoma County and beyond.  

Marisa Endicott

“In Your Corner” Columnist, The Press Democrat

Born and raised in Northern California, I'm dedicated to getting to know all its facets and helping track down the answers to tough questions. I want to use my experience as a journalist and an investigator to shine a light on local systems, policies and practices so residents have the information they need to advocate for the changes they want to see. I’m passionate about centering the many voices in the communities I cover, and I want readers to guide my work.

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