‘I do see hope’: Interim president takes reins at troubled Sonoma State

SSU President Mike Lee has asked “all divisions” of the university to “break down” barriers preventing students from attending, and succeeding, at the university.|

Ming-Tung “Mike” Lee stood at the west-facing window of his new office Monday afternoon, looking out at Darwin Hall and, beyond it, the Sonoma State University Library.

Directly below, merchants in pop-up tents peddled posters to students decorating the dorm rooms they’d moved into two days earlier.

He looked like a man still getting the lay of the land. Lee was just starting his third week as the school’s interim president. On Aug. 1, he replaced Judy Sakaki, who resigned amid a sexual harassment and retaliation scandal linked to her and her now-estranged husband.

The 61-year-old Lee is four years removed from his last job, at Sacramento State University, where he’d served both as vice president for Administration and Business Affairs, and as chief financial officer. After 28 years there, he retired in 2018.

“I was fully retired and very happy being a grandpa,” said Lee, who will be seeing less of his 2 ½-year-old grandson since he and his wife, Fei, moved from Davis into housing on the campus where he will now be called upon to boost morale and resuscitate enrollment, which sagged from 9,200 in 2017 to just under 7,200 in 2021.

Tackling structural problems

Those dwindling numbers — driven by wildfires, pandemic and the cost of living in Sonoma County — are the primary reason the university is confronting a budget shortfall of approximately $14 million for the 2022-2023 school year, a school official said Tuesday.

Lee’s years as a CFO give him the chops to take on the structural financial problems facing Sonoma State. That, at least, is the hope of Jolene Koester, interim chancellor of the 23-school California State University System. A former provost at Sac State, it was Koester who talked Lee out of retirement.

While acknowledging Sonoma State’s “pretty dramatic” enrollment decline, Lee pointed to an upbeat figure: an increase of 254, over last year, in the number of first-year students on campus.

“I do see hope,” he said, noting that this fall marks a fresh era, “right after the pandemic.” Meanwhile, as one of his first acts, he’s asked “all divisions of the university to break down any barriers” that might prevent potential students from attending Sonoma State, “and staying here.”

Four thousand students had thronged a welcome-back event on campus the night before.

“It was very cool,” said Lee, who was smiling nonstop as he posed for pictures with students.

“It was a great vibe. They were excited to be back.”

Faculty reassured

While Sakaki made marked upgrades to the quality of student life, she left many professors disgruntled. Some faculty questioned her commitment to Academic Affairs.

Lee’s hiring could be construed as an assurance to Sonoma State faculty that their concerns are being heard. During his nearly three decades at Sacramento State, his roles included interim provost and vice president of Academic Affairs.

“He’s got a very diverse background, and he taught for 12 years,” said Bryan Burton, a Criminology professor and vice-chair of Sonoma State’s Academic Senate. “He understands what it means to be a professor. I think that reassures a lot of faculty members.”

Like many students at Sonoma State, Lee was the first person in his family to attend college — and to earn a Masters, then a Ph.D. His story is a powerful testament to the benefits of public education.

Taiwan upbringing

His father fled mainland China to Taiwan in 1949, to escape Mao Zedong’s communist rule, then married a native Taiwanese woman.

“I actually grew up speaking Mandarin Chinese with my father and Taiwanese with my mom,” said Lee, with a laugh.

His father had three years of schooling, total. His mother was illiterate. But their son loved books, so they scrimped and sacrificed to buy them for him. Lee applied to Tunghai University, where 10% of applicants were accepted, he said.

He got in. On his first day on campus, Lee went to the library.

“To this day, as I sit here talking to you,” he said, “I still remember the smell of all those books. Never in my life had I seen so many books in one place, that I could touch, and pull off the shelf. It was a wonderful feeling.”

Lee majored in literature. After two years in the Taiwanese Army, he and Fei moved to Lexington, Kentucky, where he earned a master's degree in international commerce and a doctorate in business administration at the University of Kentucky.

Lee started at Sacramento State in 1990 as an associate professor of marketing. That’s pertinent to his current job. One of Sonoma State’s woes is its ongoing identity crisis. The school hasn’t settled on a distinct brand.

Cheerleader for liberal arts

Asked about that identity crisis, Lee launched on a paean about the university’s status as a public liberal arts and sciences university. Sonoma State is the only California member of the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges.

Liberal arts, he said, “are about enriching a person for life.” Those with liberal arts educations, he went on, “become better critical thinkers. They are more creative, better able to learn new things.”

Which brought him to the subject of Chinese calligraphy, a pastime he took up in retirement. So enthusiastic is Lee about this hobby that he conducted a brief clinic for a visitor in his office, drawing an involved character that meant “blue,” and another that meant “cloud.”

One feature of the paper, he noted, is that after a short time, the characters disappear.

Kind of like an interim president. According to the CSU, Lee’s appointment is to last for the duration of the 2022-2023 school year.

Lee is dealing with that “interim” tag by ignoring it, basically.

“I’m the president,” he said. “I’m the one who’s responsible. The buck stops here.”

No matter who’s running it, he said, “this will continue to be a great university, with tremendous resources” — he’d earlier effused about the Green Music Center and 450-acre Fairfield Osborn Preserve — “great researchers, and professors, and staff.”

“And we need to get out and share that with the world.”

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

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