Sakaki annouces she will not attend Sonoma State graduation ceremonies this weekend
Sonoma State University President Judy Sakaki, embattled over her handling of sexual harassment claims against her husband, as well as campus enrollment and budget crises, announced Thursday afternoon she will not be attending this weekend’s commencement ceremonies.
Sakaki made the announcement in an email addressed to “graduating students.”
“The spotlight this weekend is on you and rightly so. You deserve an uninterrupted celebration of your achievements, and a total focus on the potential of your bright futures. All of which is why I have made the decision not to attend commencement in person this year. I really struggled with this decision,” Sakaki wrote.
For many students, faculty and staff, the past five weeks at the university have been overshadowed by a widening scandal that has buffeted Sakaki’s leadership. A voting majority of SSU’s faculty approved a resolution of no confidence in her leadership and the North Bay’s two state senators, Mike McGuire and Bill Dodd, have both called on her to resign.
The weekend commencement ceremonies represent the second prominent university event Sakaki has chosen to skip in recent weeks. Last month, she stayed away from Seawolf Decision Day, the annual campus open house where prospective students and their parents have the opportunity to meet current students, faculty, staff and SSU alumni.
In her letter Thursday, Sakaki did not address the scandal surrounding her. She did, however, acknowledge her presence at the ceremonies would be a distraction.
“Sharing in the pure joy of this day is one of my greatest honors as president of Sonoma State. But I do not want my presence to distract in any way from this joyous event. I want the focus solely on the moment of success that you have earned, and for the day to remain wholly yours,” she said.
Sakaki has declined Press Democrat requests for in-person or phone interviews. Her personal spokesperson, Larry Kamer, did not respond to a request Thursday for an interview with Sakaki.
Sakaki, 69, has been president of the Rohnert Park campus since July 2016. Her historic appointment — the first Japanese American woman to lead a four-year college in the nation — was heralded as the dawning of a new era for the university, one Sakaki has sought to define as vigorously focused on diversity, transparency and cooperation between administration and faculty.
But her public troubles began April 13, when the The Press Democrat first reported 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 Sakaki’s husband, lobbyist and campus volunteer Patrick McCallum.
Sakaki denies any retaliation took place and has since announced her separation from McCallum, disavowing private and public statements he’s made defending himself and addressing media reports. McCallum has apologized for his “gregarious” behavior but he denied it was sexual in nature.
Sakaki’s critics say the scandal has hobbled her ability to lead at a time when the university faces an alarming decline in enrollment and a budget deficit of $15.5 million to $17 million.
As graduation approached, calls intensified from students asking her not to attend.
Will Stephenson, 25, who is set to receive his bachelor’s degree in political science on Sunday, said he was relieved to hear Sakaki would not be attending weekend ceremonies. He said the past few weeks of media coverage, outside scrutiny and campus debate have cast a pall over the university and Sakaki’s presence would have been hard for some students to accept.
“Having her present would remind us all what’s been going on,” Stephenson said. “It’s better to not have to go up there and pretend like we’re OK with what she’s been doing.”
Lauren Morimoto, chair of the faculty and head of the university’s Academic Senate, said Sakaki’s decision will allow the focus of the ceremonies to remain on students.
“I respect the president's decision to step aside to ensure that our students remain the story at commencement,” said Morimoto, who opposed the no-confidence resolution put forward by the Academic Senate, the faculty governing body.
“I hope that we can support her decision by acknowledging that she is doing what she thinks is best for our students, whether we agree with it or not and we can act to center and celebrate our students and their achievements over the two days of commencement,” Morimoto said.
The university president is typically a fairly prominent presence during graduation ceremonies. “She would be doing the welcome,” Morimoto said. “She would be the one who says, ‘You can move your tassels to the left.’”
History Chair Steve Estes said he was disappointed Sakaki had decided to skip the graduation ceremonies. Estes, who supported the no-confidence vote, said her presence would have shown the kind of “leadership” that he contends has been lacking during her tenure.
Estes said faculty are required to attend the commencement as part of their work duties. “I don’t think there should be a double standard for her,” he said. “I would encourage the president to attend graduation because I would like to see that kind of leadership.”
Graduation ceremonies will be held Saturday and Sunday, with 2,313 undergraduate and graduate students expected to receive diplomas.
Saturday will see honors conferred to graduates of the schools of Business and Economics; Science and Technology; and Arts and Humanities. On Sunday, diplomas will be awarded to students of Education; Social Sciences A; and Social Sciences B.
Morimoto echoed Sakaki’s wish to keep the weekend celebration focused on students, who “deserve the spotlight, and our staff and faculty are doing their damnedest to make sure that happens.”
You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or email@example.com. On Twitter @pressreno.