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Former Sonoma State administrators’ accounts of sexual harassment raise questions about Sakaki’s response

How we did this story

This story is based on nearly a dozen interviews with current and former Sonoma State employees, a former Channel Islands employee, a Title IX expert and hundreds of pages of documents obtained by the newspaper through public records requests.

Reporters Kaylee Tornay and Marisa Endicott interviewed former Green Music Center Managing Director Kevin Wenrick five times over the past month.

Wenrick reached out to the newspaper April 19, six days after The Press Democrat first reported a $600,000 settlement paid by the California State University system to a former SSU provost over retaliation claims tied to sexual harassment reports involving SSU President Judy Sakaki’s husband, Patrick McCallum.

The interviews with Wenrick, in addition to email correspondence, corroborating accounts from others and available documents from the time, were used to piece together the chronology in which Wenrick said he shared his concerns about McCallum with Sakaki and his firing six weeks later in September 2016.

Sakaki and former SSU Vice President of Student Affairs William Gregory Sawyer did not respond to interview requests. Sakaki answered written questions through a personal spokesperson.

How to reach 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

Marisa Endicott

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

Martin Espinoza

707-521-5213, martin.espinoza@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 administrator at Sonoma State University’s Green Music Center says he tried to tell President Judy Sakaki about the discomfort some female staff members were experiencing around her husband in August 2016, and now he suspects he lost his job because of it.

In a series of interviews with The Press Democrat over several weeks, Kevin Wenrick, former managing director of the Green Music Center, said he was fired within weeks of his conversation with Sakaki, leaving him feeling confused and conflicted.

At the time, he believed he was fired because he is gay. However, after reading recent reports that a former Sonoma State provost had also accused Sakaki of retaliation for making reports of sexual harassment against Sakaki’s husband, he decided to come forward.

Sakaki, through a spokesperson, said she had no recollection of such a conversation with Wenrick and denied any retaliation.

Sakaki, 69, has been under fire since April 13, when The Press Democrat reported the California State University system paid a $600,000 settlement to former provost Lisa Vollendorf, who made sexual harassment reports to the CSU Chancellor’s Office on behalf of three female employees against Sakaki’s now-estranged husband, education lobbyist Patrick McCallum.

Wenrick’s allegations come as Sakaki is defending her actions involving a vice president with sexual harassment claims in his past, who she allowed to remain at Sonoma State.

That case involves former Vice President of Student Affairs William Gregory Sawyer, who Sakaki hired in 2018, even though he had no references from his previous employer, CSU Channel Islands, which declined to renew his contract after 16 years.

A month before Sawyer arrived in Rohnert Park, CSU Channel Islands notified Sonoma State it was investigating him for possible violations of Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in educational settings.

Sawyer did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but public records reviewed by The Press Democrat show he denied any wrongdoing at the time.

CSU Channel Islands’ Title IX office, however, determined after more than a year of investigation that Sawyer’s behavior, which included a wide range of alleged inappropriate comments and actions toward female employees, amounted to “unprofessional conduct.” However, it was not considered “severe and pervasive” enough to have violated Title IX.

When Sakaki was notified about the findings in December 2019, her response consisted of a single conversation, in which she “spoke with Dr. Sawyer about the professional standards expected of a vice president of student affairs and of her expectation that he must conduct himself in a manner that would never put his behavior into question,” a campus spokesperson said in an email.

Sakaki’s response mirrors a conversation then-CSU Chancellor Tim White had with her about McCallum just months earlier in April 2019, according to records in the settlement with Vollendorf.

White and deputy counsel Leora Freedman explained to Sakaki their expectations for the conduct of a presidential spouse. McCallum has said the conversation caused him to change his behavior with SSU staff.

Wenrick’s account and Sawyer’s case raise new questions about what Sakaki knew about her husband’s behavior and how she approached the subject of sexual harassment and its impact on staff. They also shine a light on shortcomings in CSU practices involving Title IX investigations and the effect on victims.

“The entire system seems flawed in favor of the accused,” said Raquel De Los Santos, who worked with Sawyer years ago and was involved in two grievances filed against him.

This story is based on nearly a dozen interviews with current and former Sonoma State employees, a former Channel Islands employee, a Title IX expert and hundreds of pages of public documents.

Over the past five weeks, current and former administrators have spoken up about their efforts to avoid McCallum or shield their staff from interactions with him; students have organized a petition calling for Sakaki to resign; and nearly 200 faculty passed a vote of no confidence in her leadership. The North Bay’s two state senators — critical allies and partners for a CSU president — also called on Sakaki to step down.

Sakaki has ignored those calls. She did not attend this weekend’s graduation ceremonies because she wanted the spotlight to remain on celebrating students and their achievements, she said in a statement.

An early alarm raised

Sakaki has said in public statements she was not aware of any allegations against McCallum until “one year” after the CSU finished investigating former provost Lisa Vollendorf’s complaint — which would mean sometime in 2020.

However, Wenrick, the former director of the university’s world-class music center, says he told Sakaki within her first two months on campus that McCallum had made several women he worked with uncomfortable. The conversation, as he remembered it, took place Aug. 19, 2016, as she prepared to introduce famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma before a concert.

Wenrick, 69, who used the surname Martin until he married in 2017, had worked at Sonoma State for nearly 16 years. He started as a locksmith and worked his way up to become managing director of operations, logistics and facilities management at the Green Music Center in 2014.

After Sakaki arrived in 2016, she and McCallum would often go backstage to greet artists and were frequent visitors at the in-house Prelude Restaurant and Bar.

“That was new and exciting,” Wenrick said. “We were seeing them on a real regular basis in the first month that they were there.”

But female staff quickly began to feel uncomfortable around McCallum, said Wenrick and two other former Green Music Center administrators who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity because they fear retribution.

“I just remember … everybody, especially the females I talked to, talking about how uncomfortable Patrick made them feel when he was around,” Wenrick said.

He said other former employees told him McCallum made them feel uncomfortable by staring at female employees’ breasts and giving lingering hugs.

Wenrick said two employees discussed their feelings with him directly and would go out of their way to avoid McCallum, waiting to greet him and Sakaki until they were already seated at Prelude, to avoid hugs.

The Press Democrat is not identifying the women because they are reported victims of sexual harassment. One woman declined to speak with The Press Democrat and the other did not respond to multiple requests for interviews.

Wenrick and the two other former Green Music Center administrators, however, said they were aware one of the women was keeping a log of her experiences with McCallum.

“I heard some women were keeping records, and I was like, if something is there, we need to report it,” a former midlevel director said. She never made a report because she was never told about any harassment directly from people who experienced it, she said.

Wenrick, however, decided to speak to Sakaki.

“They had just barely been there a few months, and I didn't want to create this big controversy, which may have turned out to be nothing,” he said. “I didn't want to damage her reputation or damage her in such a way that she wouldn't be able to effectively meet and (get) people to have confidence in her.”

His view of the situation has changed, however.

“(McCallum’s) behavior has been going on literally for years now,” he said. “But at the time … it was a brand new thing.”

On the night of the Yo-Yo Ma concert, Sakaki was standing stage right, Wenrick said, waiting to make welcoming remarks. In a spur-of-the-moment decision, Wenrick said he began speaking.

“Just her and I were there and I said, you know, I just wanted to give you a quick heads-up about this,” Wenrick said.

“And I told her that there's been some female employees having some concerns about Patrick's behavior, he’s making them feel a little uncomfortable. I didn't really get into any major details or anything like that.”

He said Sakaki acknowledged his remark but made no further comment and asked no questions.

“She looked at me, said, ‘OK.’ And then she never said another word (until she) went on stage and did her thing, took her seat. And that was the last I heard of it,” Wenrick said.

Larry Kamer, Sakaki’s spokesperson, said the president “has no recollection of the conversation (Wenrick) alleges took place.”

“That said, Dr. Sakaki would never retaliate against anyone for bringing forward workplace issues,” Kamer said. “She has made clear that she abhors discrimination based on race, gender, ethnicity, or sexual preference. Her entire professional life has been dedicated to creating opportunities for members of underrepresented communities.”

McCallum also cast doubt on the conversation.

“I just want to say in absolute total confidence, if Judy had ever heard anything about my behavior, there’s no question she would have talked to me about it,” he said.

McCallum has apologized for actions that made staff uncomfortable, while denying he ever had inappropriate intentions.

In a long email sent to several friends and family members April 16, he explained he had very little understanding of how the actions of a president’s spouse could be perceived and admitted he had been too friendly with people and too eager to get involved with campus matters.

After attending a workshop about a year into Sakaki’s presidency, McCallum said he changed his behavior. “I was careful who I hugged and shook hands even if someone just hugged Judy and was coming up to hug me next,” he said in his email.

The two former music center administrators said Wenrick told them he planned to speak with Sakaki about McCallum. One said she also heard him telling co-workers about his conversation with Sakaki after it happened.

“I remember Kevin making a comment like, ‘(The two women) were uncomfortable. I'm going to have to tell the president,’” said a former associate director who asked not to be identified out of concerns about retaliation. “In my head I'm going, I don’t know if that's a good idea.”

“If it had continued on, I would have gone to HR,” Wenrick said. “But again, within a (few) weeks, I was fired.”

On Sept. 30, 2016, Wenrick was called to a meeting with his supervisor and SSU’s director of human resources. He was told his position had been eliminated based on a consultant’s recommendation.

John Welty, a former president of Fresno State University, had been hired by Sakaki as a consultant to review the Green Music Center’s finances.

The $145 million center had been losing money and was covering expenses with money from the university’s general fund, including state appropriations and tuition, Welty said.

Welty recommended eliminating two positions, one of which was Wenrick’s.

Wenrick said he was not allowed to retire in lieu of being fired, despite positive performance reviews, and he was prohibited from applying for other open positions on campus, which was commonly allowed.

“They did (that) with everybody else that they moved. If they no longer wanted them in the particular job that they were in, they moved them to another position,” Wenrick said. “I was told to hit the road, Jack, no exceptions.”

He was granted the right to sue from the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing on June 26, 2017, records show.

At the time, the possibility of retaliation for coming forward about McCallum didn’t occur to him. The most likely explanation for his firing, he said, was anti-gay discrimination.

He began to pursue a lawsuit on that basis. In a Dec. 12, 2017, letter from Wenrick’s attorney to the CSU, Wenrick cited what he described as a derogatory comment Sakaki made to him about his relationship; a demotion his partner received at Sonoma State shortly after Sakaki’s comment; and his own firing.

Wenrick offered to settle for $900,000.

CSU’s lawyers rejected the settlement offer in January, saying Wenrick’s firing “was based on legitimate business reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with (his) sexual orientation.”

Wenrick dropped the matter soon after because his husband was being considered for a job with the CSU, he said, and he didn’t want to threaten their only source of income.

“We just decided it wasn't worth it,” Wenrick said. “It wasn't worth pursuing this because there was going to be zero consequences to Judy Sakaki and there may be serious consequences to (us).”

‘A flaw in the system’

About the same time, in January 2018, Sonoma State sent an offer letter to Sawyer, the Channel Islands vice president, offering him the position of vice president of student affairs.

Sawyer, now 67, had left CSU Channel Islands in December 2017. At his retirement party, then-president Erica Beck lauded him for a “MacGyver-like skill set and incredible passion,” according to the Camarillo Acorn newspaper.

But two months prior, Beck made it clear Sawyer’s differences with the campus were serious enough to warrant a speedy separation. He was notified he was not being retained on Oct. 27. His employment was to end three days later, according to documents obtained by The Press Democrat.

He received three months salary, in accordance with state law, the letter said.

By Oct. 30, records show Sawyer and the university signed a settlement allowing him to retire instead.

Beck, now president at CSU Northridge, said in an email that Sawyer’s departure from Channel Islands “did not involve any Title IX issues.” A spokesperson for the university said the Title IX investigation that would later unfold was not a factor in the decision.

When Sonoma State reached out for a reference for Sawyer during its hiring process, officials were told Sawyer’s retirement was due to a “misalignment between Dr. Sawyer’s vision for the Division of Student Affairs and the future direction of CSUCI,” said Channel Islands spokesperson Nancy Gill.

Beck confirmed, however, that no reference was provided.

Sonoma State officials said that didn’t ring alarm bells.

“The fact that someone may not be a good fit at one institution does not preclude their success in a similar role at a different institution,” SSU spokesperson Julia Gonzalez told The Press Democrat.

“President Sakaki had a professional relationship with Dr. Sawyer prior to hiring him and based on her knowledge of his skills and experience, believed that he would be successful at Sonoma State,” she said.

In March 2018, about three months after Sawyer left, CSU Channel Islands received a report from a woman in the student affairs office that triggered a Title IX investigation.

Channel Islands notified Sonoma State about the investigation. Sawyer started a month later at the Rohnert Park campus.

Over the next year and a half, dozens of witnesses were interviewed, and a woman who initially spoke with investigators as a witness then filed her own complaint against Sawyer, who continued working at Sonoma State.

“Due to the circumstances of the complaint (including the nature of the allegations), the campus determined that it was not necessary to place Dr. Sawyer on leave while the CSUCI investigation was in progress,” Gonzalez said.

A redacted copy of the investigation released to The Press Democrat by the Channel Islands campus shows the women told investigators Sawyer made inappropriate comments, talked frequently about their appearances, and pried into personal details of their lives. He allegedly called one woman “spicy” and “feisty” and would put his hand on her and others’ lower backs.

De Los Santos, who worked as Sawyer’s assistant for the better part of a decade in the early 2000s, was interviewed as a witness in the 2018 investigation.

In an interview with The Press Democrat, she said she told investigators Sawyer called her frequently late at night and once shared that he was calling from the bathtub while at a conference.

He called her his “work wife,” she said.

He once tried to look at the size tag in the waistband of her pants during a conversation about her weight loss, she told the investigator. The incident was corroborated by another witness.

De Los Santos said she didn’t recognize the behavior as harassment at first. Sawyer cultivated a sense that employees in his office were family, she said.

“I didn't see it. I couldn't connect the dots until I did, and I feel so embarrassed,” De Los Santos told The Press Democrat. “You rationalize it away because he wasn't coming in under the table and grabbing you … And then you start thinking, well, wait a minute, this plus this plus that is wrong.”

De Los Santos’ sense of institutional betrayal is fueled by her own experience trying to make a complaint about Sawyer in 2010.

Her grievance, filed with Channel Islands human resources, alleged Sawyer discriminated against her by moving her into a different position when she returned from maternity leave. She felt it was in retaliation for her pushing back against his inappropriate behavior, such as late-night calls, something she said she told investigators.

Almost a year later, her complaint was dismissed and, following policy, she appealed to the Chancellor’s Office. A human resources employee reviewed the notes from her investigation and upheld the campus’ decision without re-interviewing De Los Santos, she said.

She continued to work with Sawyer, who she said became hostile.

“It was hell,” she said. “It was the worst time of my life.” The experience shook her faith in the system.

When she was asked to speak as a witness in the 2018 investigation, De Los Santos said she “was surprised and really sad,” especially because the woman filing the complaint was De Los Santos’ student assistant, who later became a full-time staff member in Sawyer’s department.

“I carry that guilt,” she said, tearing up. “I should have protected her, and I didn’t … It's sickening to know that happened.”

Documents show that after learning of Sawyer’s new job in Sonoma County, another woman, who’d previously been afraid to report Sawyer, told the investigator she “was disappointed that Sawyer was allowed to leave CSUCI ‘on his own terms and get a brand-new group of women to treat this way.’”

Sawyer, who was a popular and well-connected administrator at both institutions, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. In interviews with investigators, he denied any inappropriate intent and some of the specific allegations, records show.

“Sawyer never expressed regret that he may have made any of the females interviewed feel uncomfortable nor did he comment that it was possible his behavior could have been perceived as inappropriate,” the investigator’s report said.

In the 2018 complaints, the investigator found the allegations of both women to be credible.

Records show that although the Channel Islands Title IX Office substantiated the women’s complaints, it also determined that, in both cases, the behavior did not reach the level of “severe and pervasive” as to violate policy. Instead, the office determined the behavior amounted to “unprofessional conduct.”

Sakaki was informed of the outcome of the investigations, campus spokespeople confirmed. Sawyer received no discipline, though Sakaki did speak with Sawyer about the expected standards for his role.

Sawyer remained in his position until his retirement two years later in December 2021.

Sonoma State said it received no complaints of inappropriate conduct during his tenure.

That’s little comfort to De Los Santos, who now has doubts about university protections for those who come forward.

“There’s a flaw in the system,” she said. “The CSU has an issue with how they handle these complaints. They say that they're for you, but they're really not.”

Hoping to be heard

Lack of transparency and inconsistent response to harassment reports affect more than just the individuals involved, said Sandra Hodgin, a Title IX expert and founder of the California-based Title IX Consulting Group.

For others watching and reading about investigations and their outcomes, “it really leaves them in the dark.”

“Students and employees don't know if they have a campus that will really be there to help and support them when they're in dire need or … through an emergency, through a scandal,” Hodgin said.

De Los Santos said watching reports from her former assistant and other women go nowhere confirmed the “wake-up call” when she was rebuffed after trying to sound an alarm about Sawyer.

“I learned very quickly that they're there to protect the campus, not you,” De Los Santos said.

She also said she was disappointed Sawyer was so easily hired at Sonoma State.

“If you know in this day and age that there's allegations against somebody, you are taking on a tremendous risk. Why would you do that to your students, to your staff?”

Wenrick, who kept his story to himself for six years, said he hopes to spur change.

“I don’t want any other person that works at Sonoma State — whether they’re custodial, landscaping level or vice president level — I don’t want them to go through what I had to go through,” he said.

“My perspective is, if they would have listened to some of us out of the gate, we wouldn't be where we are today,” Wenrick said.

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 we did this story

This story is based on nearly a dozen interviews with current and former Sonoma State employees, a former Channel Islands employee, a Title IX expert and hundreds of pages of documents obtained by the newspaper through public records requests.

Reporters Kaylee Tornay and Marisa Endicott interviewed former Green Music Center Managing Director Kevin Wenrick five times over the past month.

Wenrick reached out to the newspaper April 19, six days after The Press Democrat first reported a $600,000 settlement paid by the California State University system to a former SSU provost over retaliation claims tied to sexual harassment reports involving SSU President Judy Sakaki’s husband, Patrick McCallum.

The interviews with Wenrick, in addition to email correspondence, corroborating accounts from others and available documents from the time, were used to piece together the chronology in which Wenrick said he shared his concerns about McCallum with Sakaki and his firing six weeks later in September 2016.

Sakaki and former SSU Vice President of Student Affairs William Gregory Sawyer did not respond to interview requests. Sakaki answered written questions through a personal spokesperson.

How to reach 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

Marisa Endicott

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

Martin Espinoza

707-521-5213, martin.espinoza@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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