Existential threat: Sonoma State’s budget crunch poses a bigger problem than the scandal surrounding its president

The school’s declining enrollment and deep-seated, structural financial problems pose a far greater threat to its future than the current cloud over its president, some faculty members say.|

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 Thursday, 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.

Karen Moranski was in damage control mode.

The Sonoma State University provost had ventured into the school’s Warren Auditorium Wednesday afternoon to placate a score or so of faculty members.

They were there not to discuss the school’s embattled president, Judy Sakaki, and the allegations of sexual harassment against her estranged husband, but rather a confidential report leaked several weeks earlier.

“What’s at stake here is not merely the leadership of President Sakaki, but the future of the institution.” David McCuan

It detailed how the university intended to address part of the $15 million to $17 million deficit now confronting it — by carving $5.5 million from the budget of the Academic Affairs division. Among the more eyebrow-raising recommendations in the document: cutting the nursing program, and merging two schools — Arts & Humanities and Social Sciences.

Moranski assured the Ph.D.s arrayed before her that those proposals were merely concepts. The report, first revealed in the student-run Sonoma State Star newspaper, was just a work in progress, she said. No decisions had been made.

Even so, several professors spoke of how the administration had betrayed their trust.

Scarcely mentioned during the hourlong meeting was the scandal enveloping the highest reaches of the administration. That was refreshing, in a way — but also a reminder that this university was in crisis long before the allegations of retaliation made against Sakaki over her husband’s case came to light.

Sonoma State’s deep-seated, structural financial problems pose a far greater threat to its future than the current cloud over its president, say administrators and faculty members on the Rohnert Park campus.

“What’s at stake here is not merely the leadership of President Sakaki, but the future of the institution,” said David McCuan, chair of the Political Science department and a staunch critic of Sakaki.

“Will SSU be a gem for the California State University system?” he said. “Or, will it continue to be potential that remains unfulfilled?”

Attempts to interview Sakaki for this story were met with a reply from a spokesperson who noted that Sakaki acknowledged the university’s budget difficulties in a statement a week earlier.

She said no final decisions have been made, but that the fiscal process needs to be improved “to better fit the changing size and demands of our campus.”

Why so low?

The 29-page report that raised hackles among the faculty in Warren Auditorium on that Wednesday afternoon was the product of a working group convened in December by Moranski.

The group is called the Academic Affairs Budget Advisory Working Group, or AABAWG — an acronym one professor dubbed “Balrog” — after the demonic monster slain by Gandalf in “The Lord of The Rings.”

Comprised of faculty, staff and administration, members met over the spring semester.

On page 28 of their report, a forlorn question is posed (but not answered): “Why is our yield rate so low?”

A college’s “yield rate” is the percentage of students who — having been accepted — actually enroll.

Of the 13,353 students who applied for undergraduate admission to Sonoma State for the 2020-21 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, 89% were accepted. Only 7.7% of those accepted ultimately chose to enroll at the Rohnert Park campus, a yield rate McCuan described as “dismal.”

“There was really kind of an atmosphere on campus that it was a country club in disguise.” Laura Watt

The numbers haven’t always been so grim, according to collegetuitioncompare.com. The university’s yield rate was 17.54% a decade ago, and has sunk steadily since then.

It was 14.36% in 2016-17, the year Sakaki succeeded then-university president Ruben Armiñana, then dipped to 11.27% in 2019-20. That was a reflection, in part, of the wildfires and smoke that had plagued the North Bay for three consecutive years.

Those shrinking yield rates — last year’s woeful 7.67% marked the most dramatic one-year plunge in at least a decade — have resulted in dwindling enrollment numbers.

The pandemic has certainly played a role. According to an EdSource story last November, 17 of 23 CSU campuses lost enrollment during the pandemic.

Across the CSU system, fall 2021 enrollment is down 1.7%; nationally, public four-year universities experienced a decline of 2.5% last year.

But the declines at CSU campuses in Northern California have been more extreme, particularly in recent years.

Since Sakaki took the helm at Sonoma State in 2016, fall enrollment has declined by 23%, from 9,323 to 7,182, according to university data. Moranski and other faculty point to recent wildfires as one of the main reasons.

Cal Poly Humboldt saw a 32.5% decrease in fall enrollment between 2016 and 2021, from 8,503 students to 6,431.

CSU Chico — which is less than 20 miles west of Paradise, a community devastated by the state’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire in 2018 — had a 12.2% decline during same period.

By comparison, enrollment at Sacramento State in fall 2021 hit a record high of 31,573 while enrollment at the East Bay CSU campus has remained relatively stable at roughly 15,000 students since 2016.

Strategic shift in recruitment

Laura Watt, a former environmental history professor and faculty chair at Sonoma State, recalled the aura on campus when she was hired in 2006. Armiñana’s controversial passion project, the $120 million Green Music Center, was half-finished. Posh new dorms had recently been completed.

“There was really kind of an atmosphere on campus that it was a country club in disguise,” said Watt, who retired last year.

“At that point, the university was very actively recruiting Southern California, in places like San Diego and Orange County, saying, ‘Send your kid to wine country, and then come visit!,’” she said.

Sakaki, she said, put her own stamp on the school’s recruitment philosophy, making a concerted push to redirect the emphasis on whom the university should be serving.

“Not to disparage the rich kids from LA — they’re great,” said Watt. “But we had a lot of ‘em.”

Under Sakaki, the school focused more intentionally “on serving our local six-county service region and building transfer pathways from regional community colleges,” according to a 2020 document explaining the university’s evolving recruitment focus.

“As a Hispanic-Serving Institution,” it explained, “we are committed to increasing our service to Latinx, Black, Indigenous, and Asian and Pacific Islander populations, as well as low-income communities.”

In an email response to questions from The Press Democrat, Moranski said Sakaki “has worked to build strategic partnerships with community colleges throughout California.”

The university has increased support for transfer students and boasts “the best on-time graduation rates for transfer students in the CSU,” she added.

The shift, though, hasn’t stemmed the enrollment drought. While fires, coupled with a pandemic, have hurt — many on campus believe there’s more to the story.

Sticking closer to home

Yes, those acts of God are beyond the administration’s control, allowed economics professor Florence Bouvet during Thursday’s meeting of the Academic Senate. But the decline in Sonoma State’s enrollment numbers “are much, much higher than other campuses that also dealt with wildfires and COVID,” she argued.

During the pandemic, explained anthropology department chair Richard J. Senghas, certain enrollment patterns emerged throughout the CSU system.

Students tended to “retrench,” he said — to stick closer to home and attend their regional CSU campus. “And they weren’t in dorms.”

That has worked against a nonurban campus like Sonoma State, whose business model is built on students filling its dormitories and purchasing meal plans.

Also working against the Seawolves are California’s demographics. There are far more university-age students in Southern California than in Northern California, noted Watt, “and this generation of college students seems less interested in ‘going away’ for college than perhaps previous generations were.”

Speaking in defense of Sakaki at Thursday’s meeting of the Academic Senate, professor of Finance Michael Santos urged his fellow faculty members to “look inward,” challenging them to examine the courses they’re offering.

“Do you think our curriculum is attractive” to potential students, he asked, before proceeding to single out, for its alleged lack of timeliness and relevance, a class taught by another professor, also at the meeting.

Identity crisis

Part of the university’s recruitment problem is that it “doesn’t quite know what it wants to be,” noted Stefan Kiesbye, a novelist who chairs the school’s English department. “We have a problem telling students across California exactly who we are.”

Asked to describe the university’s identity, Moranski provided a more trenchant and informative encapsulation than the “brand story” that appears on its website.

Sonoma State, she wrote, in part, “is a public liberal arts and sciences university” including “STEM and professional programs.”

“We are proud of our status as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, our residential community, our high-touch student services, our sustained faculty — student interactions, our smaller size in relation to larger CSUs.”

She also noted that Sonoma State is one of 29 members of the Council of Public liberal Arts Colleges — the only CSU school with that distinction. Yet for a long time, said two professors, Sonoma State seemed almost embarrassed by that association.

There’s a reason Humboldt State is now Cal Poly Humboldt. Donors and the state Legislature “are willing to give more money if it’s framed around STEM,” said one Sonoma State professor who spoke on the condition of anonymity, for fear of offending the administration.

“But are they going to fund a liberal arts college? Not quite the same way. Because they don’t see the value of that.”

When the Sakaki administration arrived, said Kiesbye, “they were reluctant” to trumpet their liberal arts credentials. “They thought it wasn’t a draw for parents, it wasn’t good for marketing, they wanted to focus more on individual programs,” he recalled.

But if you lack a strong identity — whether it is as a party school, a school with a great prelaw program, “or a school with an awesome marine biology program, or whatever,” said Kiesbye — “and then you are hit by fires and a pandemic, you will suffer the consequences.”

Budget woes

One of the major consequences of the enrollment loss is a budget shortfall.

All CSU campuses have the same system-wide tuition fee, currently $5,742 per academic year for undergraduate students enrolling in more than six units per term. Each campus also has its own mandatory fees.

A CSU online calculator estimates the total cost of attending Sonoma State is $27,352 for students who live on campus and $30,252 for those living in off-campus housing.

Sonoma State is currently projecting a budget shortfall of between $15.5 million and $17 million for the 2022-23 fiscal year, according to Laura Lupei, associate vice president for university budget and planning. Each school division is planning “base reductions” that total about $7.8 million.

The campus also proposes cutting $188,631 from the Office of the President; $96,776 from University Advancement; $394,297 from Student Affairs; $1,501,247 from Administration and Finance; and $72,639 Green Music Center.

The $5.5 million in cuts from Academic Affairs is the largest proposed reduction of the school’s divisions because that department’s budget consists of 71% of the total university Budget.

Sonoma State officials said that during the pandemic, many students remained in their home counties. As a result, the university temporarily focused recruitment efforts on students living in the North Bay and surrounding areas. The school is actively recruiting throughout California, out-of-state, and internationally, officials said.

Short-term fixes

Despite his criticisms of Sakaki, McCuan signed on to be member of the budget working group. He wanted to participate, because the work was hard but “worthwhile.”

Members of the group defended it, saying it marked the first time a democratic process had been used to explore the difficult task of cutting budgets. The team operated with the goal of avoiding cutting full-time faculty or academic programs. What resulted were a number of ideas in raw form that got leaked to the local school paper before they could be vetted, members said.

One idea, the combining of the arts and humanities and social sciences departments, has drawn criticism from faculty.

But McCuan said the pain of the cuts could be avoided if the university would be willing to “loan” the Academic Affairs division money from other, more flush departments. There are reserves, he insists, that could be loaned to Academic Affairs, but those funds are parked places where they don’t show up in the University’s “operating fund.”

After two straight years of state budget surpluses, said Senghas, the anthropology professor, “it seems there should be some discussion of short-term, one-time bridging funds for schools whose enrollments were hit especially hard by COVID-19.

Watt is a Fulbright-National Science Foundation Arctic Scholar who recently spent a year conducting research in Iceland, and is now living there. She wonders if Sonoma State shouldn’t follow the lead of some other state schools and offer more online classes and programs.

But Armiñana, Sakaki’s predecessor, “invested so heavily in making SSU into a more residential campus” — debt the university is still carrying, Watt said, “that offering tons of online classes might be counterproductive.”

What happens if Sonoma State can’t self-arrest — can’t get out of its current downward spiral? The outlook, in that case, isn’t great.

“If the campus stays in a continued state of distress and controversy for much longer, rather than focusing on finding a way forward,” said Watt, her beloved former employer might “shrink to a point from which it would be difficult to recover.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

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 Thursday, 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.

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