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McGuire, Dodd call on Sakaki to step down after Sonoma State faculty approve resolution of no confidence in her leadership

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.

Voting by faculty began May 6 and ended May 9 with approval of the no-confidence resolution.

Sonoma State University faculty members on Monday approved a resolution of no confidence in the leadership of President Judy Sakaki, and two state lawmakers representing Sonoma County immediately called on her to step down.

“The faculty has spoken and it’s time for the healing process to begin. President Sakaki should step down for the greater good of the university,” Sens. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, and Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, said in a joint statement.

Sakaki has faced sharp criticism of her handling of campus sexual harassment allegations against her husband, lobbyist Patrick McCallum, as well as ongoing critique of her oversight of campus budget and enrollment woes.

Of 278 faculty votes cast, 173 voted in favor of the no-confidence resolution, while 105 voted against, a margin of 62% voters in favor and 38% opposed.

Only 44% of the 629 eligible voters cast ballots in the referendum.

After the results of the vote were made public Monday evening, Sakaki said in a written statement that she was “gratified for support I've received and am mindful of the concerns of those colleagues who cast their vote the other way.

“Our campus priorities, which I outlined in my Campus Letter on April 21, remain the same: redoubling our efforts on Title IX; addressing the budget; strategic enrollment; and new initiatives.”

Larry Kamer, a personal spokesman for Sakaki, pointed out that only 27% of the total faculty cast a "no confidence" vote, while more than half the faculty "sat this one out."

“We concur with Senators Dodd and McGuire that the healing process from this very divisive campaign needs to begin, but it's a bit of a stretch to say 'the faculty has spoken,'” Kamer said.

History Department Chair Steve Estes, who supported the no-confidence resolution, said he was dismayed that more of his colleagues didn't vote. "But I'm heartened by the fact that the majority of those who did believe there is a real need for change at Sonoma State," he said.

The 800-word no-confidence resolution excoriated Sakaki for, among other things, her handling of the allegations against her husband, and her stewardship of the 7,200-student Rohnert Park campus in general.

“President Sakaki’s lack of active leadership at the university has led to a period of declining enrollments, budget crises, and a precipitous drop in the morale of students, staff, and faculty,” the resolution stated.

Faculty votes of no confidence are largely symbolic, but Monday's result could sway wider public opinion about the future of Sakaki's presidency. The stance by McGuire, the Senate Majority Leader and a key member of the Education Committee, also could prove influential given lawmakers’ oversight role.

The vote against Sakaki, 69, comes at the end of a tumultuous four-week period after The Press Democrat first reported on April 13 that 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.

Voting on the resolution was conducted by the university’s Academic Senate, the faculty governance body. Voting began Friday and ended 5 p.m. Monday.

Lauren Morimoto, chair of the faculty, said she was surprised by the low voter turnout among faculty. She said she thought more people were in favor of the no-confidence vote.

In the week leading up to the vote, she said she was "really pleasantly surprised" to see people laying out their arguments for or against voting no-confidence on the webpage dedicated to the vote.

"The faculty made themselves heard, and clearly what they’re saying is we’re not a monolith," she said. "That might make it difficult to figure out what happens next."

Morimoto, a kinesiology professor who voted against the no-confidence resolution, said she felt she could still work productively with Sakaki to tackle the campus's issues. She also had little faith that the vote will mean much to the California State University Board of Trustees, which holds the authority to hire and fire CSU campus presidents, including Sakaki.

"Here’s my admittedly cynical view of this: that when it suits their purpose, the trustees will cite this vote of no confidence to support their decision," Morimoto said. "If it doesn’t, they will ignore it."

The day voting began last week, Sakaki’s supporters, including some Asian American faculty and administrators, called on voting faculty members to acknowledge the possibility that some of criticism against president could be laced with race and gender bias. Sakaki, who has led SSU since 2016, is the nation’s first Japanese American female president of a four-year university.

But those who support the no-confidence vote say Sakaki’s missteps as president amount to a failed record that speaks for itself. Critics point to a current deficit of $15.5 million to $17 million and a dramatic decline in fall enrollment of 25%, one of the highest in the 23-campus CSU system.

Sakaki’s predecessor, Ruben Armiñana — whose relations with faculty were notoriously combative — was the subject of a similar referendum in 2007. A full 73% of participating faculty members expressed no confidence in him, a result “he just ignored,” recalled Laura Watt, a former Sonoma State environmental history professor and faculty chair.

Holmstrom-Keyes said of 629 faculty were eligible to vote on the no-confidence resolution, 242 were tenured or tenure-track faculty, 294 lecturers or adjunct faculty teaching 7.5 units or more, and 85 student services professionals who are considered faculty according to the Academic Senate.

The controversy at Sonoma State comes as the California State University network seeks to address a wider scandal about systemic flaws in its handling of sexual harassment cases.

Morimoto, the faculty chair, said she was glad the vote was over so the faculty can focus on continued issues the university faces, including its budget deficit and controversy over its compliance with Title IX, the federal law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex in educational settings.

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

You can reach Staff Writer Kaylee Tornay at 707-521-5250 or kaylee.tornay@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ka_tornay.

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.

Voting by faculty began May 6 and ended May 9 with approval of the no-confidence resolution.

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.  

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