Asian American faculty members at Sonoma State call for recognition of race and gender bias in criticism of Sakaki

In a May 6 “open letter,” the group sought to counter public assertions by Sakaki critics who have said that gender and race play no role in their critique of her leadership.|

A group of Asian American faculty and staff at Sonoma State University is calling on fellow faculty to acknowledge potential race and gender bias as hundreds of professors begin voting on a no-confidence referendum leveled against embattled President Judy Sakaki.

The vote comes amid withering criticism of her handling of sexual harassment allegations against her husband, Patrick McCallum, but also her stewardship of the Rohnert Park campus at a time significant decline in enrollment and crippling budget deficits.

In a May 6 “open letter” to Sakaki, the group sought to counter public assertions by Sakaki critics who have said that gender and race play no role in their critique of her leadership.

Open Letter .pdf

In public statements responding to the controversy, Sakaki has drawn on her identity as a Japanese American and career arc in higher education to emphasize she has faced discrimination and would not tolerate it on her watch.

Faculty Chair Lauren Morimoto, one of the letter’s signatories, said the intention is not to brand all Sakaki criticism as racist or sexist, but merely to point out that people’s perspectives are “informed” by race and gender.

“We’re not saying you're racist and we’re not saying that race and gender are the primary things driving it,” Morimoto said of the questions surrounding Sakaki’s leadership. “But they're there, on how we perceive who is a leader and how much space we give to people to make errors.”

Sakaki, 69, the nation’s first Japanese American female president of a four-year university, is facing the most tumultuous period of her six-year tenure at Sonoma State.

The no-confidence vote, which began Friday and goes through Monday, comes more than three weeks after The Press Democrat first reported April 13 the California State University system paid a $600,000 settlement in January to a former SSU provost, Lisa Vollendorf, to resolve a dispute related to sexual harassment complaints against McCallum.

Sakaki, who denies any retaliation took place, has since announced her separation from McCallum and disavowed private and public statements he’s made defending himself and addressing media reports.

McCallum has apologized for behavior that may have made people feel uncomfortable, but he denied the behavior was sexual in nature.

The May 6 letter of support for Sakaki suggests her critics are unfairly taking her to task for her husband’s actions.

“When we watch people on this campus treat you with disrespect, jump to conclusions, overlook your contributions, and feel entitled to belittle and/or hold you accountable for your spouse’s actions, we feel impacted through our shared positionality as Asian Americans,” the letters states.

Sakaki, who has denied numerous Press Democrat interview requests since the first revelations last month, responded to a request for comment regarding the letter.

“I was deeply touched, heartened and lifted by the words of colleagues who know me well and who work tirelessly to achieve diversity, equity, and inclusion in higher education,” she said in a statement sent by a personal spokesperson.

The letter calls on faculty to acknowledge the potential for race and gender bias in the public debate about Sakaki’s leadership.

“Some say that this isn’t about race (or gender). Some say that their criticisms are simply about your performance as President. We say that your performance as President, your entire career, is informed by your experience as an Asian American woman,” the letter states.

“And to imagine that race and gender are not somehow implicated in your experience on this campus and in the campus responses is simply inaccurate.”

In addition to Morimoto, a kinesiology professor, other signatories include Wing Keung Jason Lau, treasurer of the Asian Pacific Islander American group at SSU; Alvin Dinh Nguyen, director of SSU’s transfer and transition programs and the group’s co-chair; Christina Thao, co-chair of API/ME Cultural Graduation Planning Committee; Erica Tom, director of Native American Studies; Charlene Tung, professor of Women’s and Gender Studies; Jennifer Watanabe-Haynes, the group’s outreach coordinator; and Khou Yang-Vigil, the group’s events coordinator.

The letter follows a separate May 5 statement of support for Sakaki from the Asian Pacific Americans in Higher Education. Sakaki is an emeritus board member of the group.

Catherine Fonseca, Sonoma State’s outreach and inclusion librarian, who supports the no-confidence resolution, welcomed the call for “self-reflection” on gender and race, saying it would help formulate people’s perspectives.

She said the simple “pro and con dichotomy” response to the referendum does not capture the nuance of the point the letter signatories were trying to make: “that the process is not color-blind.“

“I don’t think it diminishes our argument. I think it adds nuance,” she said, adding that Sakaki’s missteps in leadership have affected “me and other faculty of color.”

“I worry a lot about burnout for them,” she said. “Under this administration there is an inordinate amount of work placed on faculty of color.”

Letha Ch'ien, an assistant professor of art history, said she is holding the well-being of Sonoma State at the forefront when considering her vote. Ch’ien recently posted a statement in support of the no-confidence vote on the Academic Senate’s website.

"I ask myself if I have confidence that President Sakaki can encourage trust in the Title IX process at SSU, increase enrollment, and stanch the exodus of our colleagues," she said in a message to The Press Democrat Friday. Title IX is the federal law that bars gender discrimination in education.

An Asian American woman herself, Ch'ien expressed appreciation for the significance of Sakaki's presidency. "It has made me proud of the CSU," she said.

However, "I do not believe experience of racism or discrimination excuses an individual’s actions or eliminates review," Ch'ien said in her statement. "We should not hold Dr. Sakaki to a higher standard or a lower one. The question is very simply do we have confidence in the president's leadership?

"I wish I could say I had full confidence in the president’s ability to lead us through the present challenges," she told The Press Democrat. "I admire her life story and appreciate the work she has done for SSU. I am deeply concerned for the university at this time."

Morimoto said Friday she has not decided on how she’s going to vote in the no-confidence referendum, citing concerns she has about Sakaki’s leadership. But Morimoto said she thinks Sakaki deserves another chance.

“I'm not sure where I land on the vote, partly because I don't know if she can recover from this,” she said.

“But on the whole, when I think, is this somebody I can rebuild with? As the days have gone on, I’m beginning to think more this is somebody I can rebuild with and somebody I can hold accountable.”

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

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