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