Judy Sakaki looks to build her own legacy as Sonoma State’s new president

Judy Sakaki is Sonoma State’s seventh president and the first Japanese American woman in the nation to become president of a four-year college.|

With the start of fall classes at Sonoma State University only days away, Judy Sakaki - the school’s first new leader in almost a quarter century - is moving to craft her own era for the 56-year-old campus, one that will bridge her predecessor’s legacy of ambitious construction and renovation with greater emphasis on the needs of students, faculty and the local community.

“I see the university as opening doors, and changing lives, but not just changing lives for that individual student but for their family and the whole community, their community,” Sakaki said during an interview last week with The Press Democrat editorial board.

On Monday, Sakaki announced a number of significant changes to help her transform the university’s leadership, including the departure of Larry Furukawa-Schlereth, the school’s vice president of administration and finance and co-executive director of the Green Music Center. Sakaki said Furukawa-Schlereth, after 25 years working for the California State University system, will be retiring.

Furukawa-Schlereth could not be reached Monday for comment about his departure. Sakaki said he will be assisting Steve Relyea, executive vice chancellor and chief financial officer of the CSU system for three months before he retires.

Replacing Furukawa-Schlereth on an interim basis is Stan Nosek, who has previously served as vice chancellor of administration at UC Davis and vice president of administration and finance at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.

Nosek’s interim appointment is one of several veterans Sakaki said had retired after illustrious careers but agreed to join her temporarily at Sonoma State to assess its leadership structure and function. None will be candidates for permanent positions.

Sakaki also announced in a memo to the university community that the current vice president of student affairs, Matthew Lopez-Phillips, has been reassigned to serve as associate vice president of student affairs. He will work under the new interim vice president of that department, Michael Young, who served as vice chancellor of student affairs at UC Santa Barbara for 25 years.

“My whole background is student affairs,” Sakaki said. “I came here and the portfolio is not a student affairs portfolio. That’s very clear.” The new president said she has a “passion” for student development and cares deeply about student services such as counseling, health, housing and career development.

Sakaki is Sonoma State’s eighth president and the first Japanese-American woman in the nation to become president of a four-year college. She succeeds the school’s longtime president Ruben Armiñana.

John Welty, president emeritus at Fresno State, will serve as a special advisor on a part-time basis, assisting with the Green Music Center and examining ways the campus can be organized for “greater efficiencies and effectiveness.”

Sakaki had already announced her replacement for the school’s outgoing provost Andrew Rogerson. For temporary provost, Sakaki brought in Jeri Echeverria, retired provost of Fresno State University and former executive vice chancellor of the California State University.

The interim replacement for departing vice president of university advancement Erik Greeny was announced Monday. He is Peter Smits, a 35-year veteran in university advancement and development at Fresno State University.

Sakaki announced the creation of a new and permanent position for her chief of staff. She named Bill Kidder, who served most recently as associate vice chancellor/chief compliance officer and associate provost at UC Riverside.

In the nearly six weeks that she’s been on the job, the new Sonoma State president, who previously served as vice president of student affairs for the entire University of California system, has been making the rounds at the campus. She’s met with students, faculty, administrative and facilities staff, laying the groundwork for her goal of bringing the campus together and creating a student-centered university.

Sakaki said she wants to create a more inclusive environment on campus, where “every single person at the university has a role to play.”

A national search for permanent replacements of cabinet-level positions will be conducted, said Sonoma State spokeswoman Susan Kashack. Once identified, candidates will be interviewed by a committee that includes school faculty members. That committee makes recommendations to Sakaki.

Sakaki described the interim team she has assembled to help her assess the Sonoma State leadership structure: “My style is bringing in people who are at the top of their game. They are emeritus. They’ve left their positions at the top of their career and they have since been called back to help many universities,” she said.

“I am asking people to come in and help me look at what makes sense.”

Other priorities include building a tighter collaboration between students and faculty and seeking federal designation as a Hispanic-serving institution, which would make the school eligible for grants that expand academic opportunities for Latino students, while improving their educational attainment.

That designation at Santa Rosa Junior College helped the school land a $2.65 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education two years ago. The funds were used to create a program that provides intensive academic counseling and tutoring, supportive programs that make sure students enroll in transferable classes and the creation of a multicultural center equipped with the technology and resources necessary to succeed.

SRJC President Frank Chong said designating Sonoma State as a Hispanic-serving institute would be a natural next step in assisting local Latinos with their academic endeavors.

“We’re the largest educational institution, high school or college, that feeds Sonoma State,” he said, in large part because of a partnership between the two schools that was set up by Armiñana and was aimed at increasing diversity at Sonoma State.

“I think she will continue to build on that successful model,” Chong said.

With a new president come new opportunities for building stronger relationships with faculty, said Elaine Newman, Sonoma State mathematics and statistics professor and chapter president of California Faculty Association, the union that represents the university’s faculty, coaches, librarians and counselors.

Newman, former chairwoman and current ex-officio member of the Academic Senate, said there are a lot of “out-standing issues facing faculty on campus,” such as the university’s tendency to maintain a large roster of lecturers rather than putting more faculty on a permanent tenure track.

“We will ask Dr. Sakaki to convert many of the lecture faculty jobs to tenure track faculty jobs,” Newman said.

The union leader said she hopes Sakaki will also study faculty salaries, which she said are much lower than that of faculty at other California State Universities.

Newman said she and other faculty welcomed Sakaki’s promise of creating a more inclusive environment on campus.

“She has said she’s interested in being more transparent and listening to the concerns of faculty and students,” she said.

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

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