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A former Sonoma State vice president shielded staff from the president’s husband. He wishes he had done more

How to contact the reporters

The Press Democrat continues to dig into the Sonoma State University controversy. Three reporters are reviewing public documents and seeking greater transparency from SSU officials and leaders in the Cal State system. If you have questions, tips or suggestions, please contact them directly.

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

Sonoma State University Title IX Resources

•SSU Title IX Compliance Office: 707-664-4140 or ophd@sonoma.edu.

•SSU Victim's Advocate: 707-664-2698 or susan.pulido@sonoma.edu.

•SSU Human Resources Whistleblower contact, Erin Taylor, Director of Employee and Labor Relations: 707-664-2212 or erin.taylor@sonoma.edu

A former senior administrator at Sonoma State University said he took steps to shield female staff members from the husband of President Judy Sakaki, but that he wishes he’d done more to protect them from his reported sexual harassment.

In an interview with The Press Democrat, Gordon McDougall, who served as interim vice president for university advancement from May 2018 through February 2020, also said he told a member of the California State University system’s Chancellor’s Office about the troubling behavior of Sakaki’s husband, Patrick McCallum, but no one followed up with him.

McCallum has been involved with Sonoma State’s fundraising and outreach during the nearly six years that Sakaki has been president and was considered an “official volunteer” and ambassador for the campus. However, Sakaki announced Monday the couple were separating.

“I didn’t know (McCallum) was systematically making people uncomfortable. I just thought he was a difficult human being.” Gordon McDougall

The Press Democrat on April 13 first reported the California State University system paid $600,000 in January to a former provost who said Sakaki retaliated against her for reporting some of those sexual harassment complaints to the chancellor’s office.

Sakaki has denied the retaliation claims, calling them “utterly without basis.” She has declined numerous interview requests and released written statements in response to questions.

McCallum has also denied wrongdoing, but he apologized for any behavior that “made some people feel uncomfortable.” He defended himself and Sakaki again in a meandering email April 16 to family and friends, saying former provost Lisa Vollendorf claimed retaliation to cover for her own poor job performance.

Vollendorf has not responded to phone calls and emails.

She filed her claim in July 2021 with the university system, saying Sakaki had interfered with her job prospects and made defamatory statements about her. The settlement was reached six months later.

McDougall, 69 and retired, is one of three former and current administrators who spoke with The Press Democrat about their experiences with both McCallum and a 2019 Title IX inquiry the university system made in response to Vollendorf’s report of staff sexual harassment complaints about McCallum.

Sonoma State is one of 23 campuses in the CSU system, and Sakaki’s position is overseen by the chancellor and the CSU Board of Trustees. The systemwide Title IX officer handled the investigation into the complaints against McCallum because he is married to Sakaki.

Those complaints involved touching and conversations that made the affected employees uncomfortable, a university spokeswoman told The Press Democrat.

Title IX is the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in education.

Around the time of that CSU inquiry, McDougall said, he was contacted by Andrew Jones, executive vice chancellor and general counsel for CSU. McDougall told Jones that he had rearranged staff routines to avoid having female employees work with McCallum.

“I did that based on the fact that in previous roles in previous places, when people had questionable interactions, I would reassign people … without a lot of fanfare,” McDougall said. “And I learned as we had more and more discussions about it that there was a lot of discomfort, and more discomfort from female members of our staff.”

After McDougall’s conversation with Jones, no one at the chancellor’s office followed up with him. He said he thought that was “peculiar.”

In a statement responding to questions from a Press Democrat reporter, Jones said he did follow up.

“I can assure you that I shared with the Systemwide Title IX Compliance Officer all material information that had been shared with me from any source, including Mr. McDougall,” Jones said in an email. He said, to his knowledge, Vollendorf’s report to the Title IX officer had also included information provided by McDougall.

“I also understand that the Systemwide Title IX Compliance officer contacted one or more employees in Mr. McDougall’s division with the assistance of Dr. Vollendorf,” Jones wrote.

McDougall said he assumed he hadn’t been contacted because his knowledge of staff issues with McCallum was general, not based on specific instances that he understood to be harassment.

'Systematically making people uncomfortable’

However, his view of his responsibility as a manager of 10 to 15 employees, most of them female, has shifted with more reflection. Now, he said he regrets not taking a more active role in investigating his staff’s experiences with McCallum.

“I think I would have, could have and should have asked more questions about these feelings they were having,” McDougall said. “I didn’t know (McCallum) was systematically making people uncomfortable. I just thought he was a difficult human being.”

McCallum, 68, is a semiretired veteran Sacramento lobbyist with a focus on higher education. He was previously executive director for the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges.

In addition to the general discomfort among his staff, McDougall recalled one instance of McCallum’s behavior with a woman that struck him as inappropriate.

He said the incident happened in September 2018, about four months after McDougall arrived as interim vice president. He and several other Sonoma State officials were at the Green Music Center, attending the Taste of Sonoma event, an annual festival celebrating local foods and wines.

At one point, he observed McCallum speaking with Vollendorf, he said. As they spoke, McDougall said, McCallum reached up and brushed hair away from Vollendorf’s face.

It struck him as odd.

“I wouldn’t do that with too many women that I know except for my wife,” he said.

But it didn’t exactly raise alarm bells, either.

“It did seem strange to me, but who knows what kind of relationships people have, particularly coming in new like I was?” he said.

Another senior administrator told The Press Democrat that McCallum had similarly brushed her hair off her face at a different university event. She described it as “really bad” and inappropriate behavior.

That senior administrator was one of three employees interviewed by the CSU Title IX officer in January 2019 about their experiences with McCallum, after Vollendorf made her report about staff complaints of harassment. The Press Democrat spoke with two of the employees who agreed to be interviewed on the condition their names not be printed because they fear retaliation.

One employee told The Press Democrat she initially didn’t think what she experienced was harassment, and the senior administrator said she feared retaliation if her name was revealed in a formal investigation.

None of the three decided to move forward with a formal investigation after the initial interview.

McDougall said he hadn’t thought to mention the hair incident with McCallum and Vollendorf in his conversation with Jones, which occurred more than a year later.

He discussed it later with Vollendorf.

“I really think I was clueless, to be honest,” he said. “I don’t think I really understood.”

Due diligence vs ‘minimum route’

McDougall also discussed Vollendorf’s complaint to the chancellor’s office with another administrator at the time.

Joyce Lopes, who was vice president of administration and finance at Sonoma State from August 2017 through May 2021, confirmed those conversations took place.

Lopes said she had advised Vollendorf to take staff complaints to the chancellor’s office rather than to Sonoma State’s Title IX office. The campus office is not supposed to investigate the university president or the presidential spouse, she said.

Sandra Hodgin, founder and CEO of the Title IX Consulting Group in California, said because the women affected did not pursue a formal investigation, it didn’t surprise her that CSU’s Title IX officer may not have spoken with McDougall.

“They still did an informal investigation,” Hodgin said. “In that respect, they’re in compliance with Title IX. Could they have gone further? The answer is yes.”

Without formal complaints, there’s generally no obligation or motivation for an official investigation, according to Hodgin. However, under certain circumstances — when the subject of the concerns is a person with sway or influence on campus, for instance — a university still has the option to pursue an investigation on its own behalf.

“If you’re doing your due diligence then you could start an investigation in-house to protect the community,” she said.

Many schools, in Hodgin’s experience, go “the minimum route,” however.

“Most campuses are afraid to push the envelope and do university-driven Title IX investigations because either they lack resources, they lack staff or they lack the knowledge to understand or maneuver in this direction,” she said.

“It has an impact on Title IX protections, because you have to wonder if the officers are actually protecting the community or if they’re simply acting as agents of the university that will then protect the university on its own, versus actually investigating claims that need to be investigated thoroughly.”

CSU’s troubled Title IX history

Faculty and administrators have raised concerns that news of the payout to Vollendorf related to her retaliation claims could have a “chilling effect” that will discourage staff and students from reporting potential Title IX investigations.

Those concerns pushed several faculty to initiate the process of holding a no-confidence vote on Sakaki’s leadership.

On Thursday, the executive committee of the Academic Senate voted to put that ballot on the agenda for the next meeting of the full Academic Senate, scheduled for April 28.

CSU is also grappling with increased scrutiny over its handling of Title IX across the system. Chancellor Joseph Castro resigned in February on the heels of a USA TODAY investigation that showed he mishandled complaints of sexual harassment, retaliation and bullying against a senior administrator while Castro was president of Fresno State University.

Since then, USA TODAY has published stories showing additional CSU administrators accused of such behavior have remained employed by exercising “retreat rights,” which enable them to return to tenured faculty jobs.

Sakaki sought to provide reassurance in a message to the campus community Thursday about the integrity of campus Title IX investigations and the protections students and staff can rely on if they have something to report.

“As your President, I have the ultimate responsibility for doing everything possible to maintain a community that is free of sexual harassment, discrimination, or retaliation. I reiterate: if anyone has an incident or harm to report, I encourage you to do so,” she said in the email.

Sakaki, whose message seemed to signal she has no intention of resigning, said she is also creating a president's advisory committee on Title IX, “which will be charged with reviewing and enhancing our policies, practices and services.”

In McDougall’s case, at least part of his inaction around his staff’s discomfort may have been due to a lack of training around CSU’s Title IX policies. He never received Title IX training that informed him how to respond to the kinds of general staff concerns he heard while a vice president at Sonoma State.

“I think training in this area is always of benefit, and I maybe would have responded differently had I had that training,” he said.

Amid the maelstrom of questions around CSU’s handling of harassment and retaliation claims, McDougall said he hopes to contribute to pushing the university system in a positive direction by speaking out.

“I always try to make things better,” he said. “You accept mistakes you made and then you find ways to try to make sure they don’t happen again.

“I’m hoping that’s what will come out of what’s happening now.”

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

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

How to contact the reporters

The Press Democrat continues to dig into the Sonoma State University controversy. Three reporters are reviewing public documents and seeking greater transparency from SSU officials and leaders in the Cal State system. If you have questions, tips or suggestions, please contact them directly.

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

Sonoma State University Title IX Resources

•SSU Title IX Compliance Office: 707-664-4140 or ophd@sonoma.edu.

•SSU Victim's Advocate: 707-664-2698 or susan.pulido@sonoma.edu.

•SSU Human Resources Whistleblower contact, Erin Taylor, Director of Employee and Labor Relations: 707-664-2212 or erin.taylor@sonoma.edu

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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