As no-confidence vote against SSU President Judy Sakaki begins, some focus on leadership issues beyond the scandal

Some faculty members say they are more concerned about declining enrollment and serious budget deficits.|

What you need to know about the Sonoma State scandal

Sonoma State University President Judy Sakaki is embroiled in a scandal stemming from a $600,000 settlement paid to a former SSU provost who said she faced retaliation after relaying reports of alleged sexual harassment by the president’s estranged husband, lobbyist Patrick McCallum.

The Press Democrat on April 13 was the first to report California State University system paid former provost Lisa Vollendorf and her attorneys $600,000 in January to settle the retaliation claims.

Vollendorf, who was provost at SSU from 2017 to June 2020, filed the retaliation claim with the CSU system in July 2021. Her claim accused Sakaki of retaliating against her in response to reports Vollendorf made of sexual harassment complaints by SSU female employees against McCallum.

Since then, at least two university employees have stated that McCallum made them feel uncomfortable with inappropriate language, standing too close, and brushing their hair from their face in what was perceived as an unwelcome intimate gesture.

The university had stated the $600,000 was paid by insurance, but later backtracked, saying about $250,000 of the sum came from campus funds drawn from student tuition, fees and other sources.

Sakaki has denied retaliation and McCallum has denied wrongdoing. She has also declined repeated interview requests.

Several days after the initial Press Democrat report, McCallum sent a late-night email he said was intended for close friends and family, stating that Vollendorf leveled the accusations against him and Sakaki to cover for her poor job performance.

After The Press Democrat obtained a copy of the email, he sent a follow-up statement stating that he had a hearing impairment that led him to stand close to people and apologizing for making anyone feel uncomfortable.

The following day, Sakaki announced she was separating from McCallum.

While Sakaki has kept a low profile, the revelations have dominated campus news and added to the scrutiny surrounding CSU’s handling of sexual harassment complaints.

On April 28, the Academic Senate advanced to the full faculty a no-confidence vote on Sakaki’s leadership, and student groups have marched in protest of Sakaki, calling for her resignation. Some students have vowed to boycott graduation ceremonies if she does not.

The faculty vote is set to begin May 6.

Hundreds of Sonoma State University faculty members are expected to begin voting Friday on a resolution declaring “no confidence” in the leadership of President Judy Sakaki, who for weeks has been ensnared in a retaliation and sexual harassment scandal involving her husband, Patrick McCallum.

But key faculty members who support the referendum point out that Sakaki’s handling of harassment claims against her husband are only part of what motivated the vote. They point to Sakaki’s inability or failure to respond to one campus crisis after another.

In a lengthy statement in favor of the resolution — posted this week to a Sonoma State faculty website highlighting “pro” and “con” arguments — there was little mention of the scandal.

The statement, signed by Political Science Chair David McCuan, Outreach and Inclusion Librarian Catherine Fonseca, History Chair Steve Estes and Astronomy and Physics Chair Lynn Cominsky, among others, focused on significant enrollment declines, crippling budget deficits and a “performative” commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion that some call window dressing.

“Dr. Sakaki’s pledges to improve and change her administration’s practices ring hollow after nearly 6 years of mismanagement,” the statement says. “How many more chances are we willing to give her while Sonoma State is driven to the brink of a crisis from which it may not be able to recover?”

The educators pointed out that during Sakaki’s time as president, enrollment has declined 25%, a greater share than what Chico State has experienced in the aftermath of the worst wildfire in the history of the state; and that the school now faces a $15-to-$17 million budget deficit. They also cited frequent turnover of administrators, lack of such things as housing support for faculty and staff and the departure of multiple tenure-track faculty and staff members.

During an open forum on the referendum Thursday, hosted via Zoom by the university’s Academic Senate, faculty spoke both in favor and opposition to the no-confidence vote.

Tim Wandling, professor of literature, said he did not support the no-confidence vote because many of the problems related to enrollment and budget shortfalls now facing the university have roots in the university’s previous president, Ruben Armiñana. Wandling said he admired Sakaki’s leadership during the Trump era.

“Part of my regard, my personal regard, for Judy Sakaki is her standing up to Trump,” he said during the forum. “Her eloquence, her vision, and I think those things do matter in our leaders, and nothing’s going to ever be on the ground the way that we want it.”

The almost two-hour Zoom meeting was the second referendum forum this week. While much of the discussion about her leadership now centers around issues related to enrollment and budget deficits, Sakaki continues to face media questions about her response to allegations of sexual harassment involving her husband.

The faculty no-confidence vote, held online through Monday, May 9, comes more than three weeks after The Press Democrat first reported revelations that the California State University system paid a $600,000 settlement in January to a former provost, Lisa Vollendorf, to resolve a dispute related to sexual harassment complaints against McCallum.

Numerous stories about the scandal have since appeared in The Press Democrat, as well as the Los Angeles Times, and Sakaki has since announced her separation from McCallum. She has disavowed private and public statements McCallum made defending himself and addressing media reports.

McCallum has apologized for behavior that may have made people feel uncomfortable, but he denied that behavior was sexual in nature. For her part, Sakaki has denied any retaliation took place.

She has declined requests for an in-person interview. On Thursday, her spokesperson, Larry Kamer, in response to criticism raised by faculty about her leadership, pointed to an April 21 letter from Sakaki to the campus community highlighting her priorities and accomplishments.

Those include reviewing and improving Title IX services and processes that protect against discrimination based on sex, including sexual harassment; securing “funding at our targeted enrollment” for the next two years; achieving 90% of the university’s $9.5 million fundraising goal; and working with Chico, Humboldt, East Bay and San Francisco state universities to help address enrollment declines.

Ibrahim Ali, president of the Asian Pacific Americans in Higher Education, on Thursday sent an unsolicited statement to a Press Democrat reporter about the referendum vote.

“We unanimously stand in solidarity with Dr. Sakaki as a result of her tireless efforts to educate, advocate, and advance Asian Pacific Americans in Higher Education institutions within California and across this nation,” Ali wrote in an email.

The letter, which points out that Sakaki is the first Japanese American woman to lead a major university in the United States, notes that she has successfully increased the university’s graduation rates and transfer students. The letter also notes that Sakaki has “made the university’s finances more transparent and sustainable prior to the COVID pandemic.”

During the Academic Senate forum Thursday, veteran professor Lynn Cominsky stressed that the “sexual harassment scandal” was not her biggest concern. After Sakaki took the helm, she said, upper managers in administration were replaced by “interims,” many of whom were replaced by Sakaki’s “hand-picked friends” she knew from her time at the University of California Office of the President. “Then it didn’t work out, so they all got replaced again,” she said.

“I’m not even going to rate the sexual harassment scandal as my most concern,” Cominsky said. “The thing I’m the most concerned about is just plain bad management.”

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

What you need to know about the Sonoma State scandal

Sonoma State University President Judy Sakaki is embroiled in a scandal stemming from a $600,000 settlement paid to a former SSU provost who said she faced retaliation after relaying reports of alleged sexual harassment by the president’s estranged husband, lobbyist Patrick McCallum.

The Press Democrat on April 13 was the first to report California State University system paid former provost Lisa Vollendorf and her attorneys $600,000 in January to settle the retaliation claims.

Vollendorf, who was provost at SSU from 2017 to June 2020, filed the retaliation claim with the CSU system in July 2021. Her claim accused Sakaki of retaliating against her in response to reports Vollendorf made of sexual harassment complaints by SSU female employees against McCallum.

Since then, at least two university employees have stated that McCallum made them feel uncomfortable with inappropriate language, standing too close, and brushing their hair from their face in what was perceived as an unwelcome intimate gesture.

The university had stated the $600,000 was paid by insurance, but later backtracked, saying about $250,000 of the sum came from campus funds drawn from student tuition, fees and other sources.

Sakaki has denied retaliation and McCallum has denied wrongdoing. She has also declined repeated interview requests.

Several days after the initial Press Democrat report, McCallum sent a late-night email he said was intended for close friends and family, stating that Vollendorf leveled the accusations against him and Sakaki to cover for her poor job performance.

After The Press Democrat obtained a copy of the email, he sent a follow-up statement stating that he had a hearing impairment that led him to stand close to people and apologizing for making anyone feel uncomfortable.

The following day, Sakaki announced she was separating from McCallum.

While Sakaki has kept a low profile, the revelations have dominated campus news and added to the scrutiny surrounding CSU’s handling of sexual harassment complaints.

On April 28, the Academic Senate advanced to the full faculty a no-confidence vote on Sakaki’s leadership, and student groups have marched in protest of Sakaki, calling for her resignation. Some students have vowed to boycott graduation ceremonies if she does not.

The faculty vote is set to begin May 6.

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