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Sakaki annouces she will not attend Sonoma State graduation ceremonies this weekend

President Sakaki announced Thursday she would not be attending the Saturday and Sunday ceremonies amid a sexual harassment and retaliation scandal that has clouded her leadership.|

What you need to know about the Sonoma State University 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 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 martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @pressreno.

What you need to know about the Sonoma State University 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.

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