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Sonoma State President Judy Sakaki to step down amid sexual harassment and retaliation scandal

Sonoma State University President Judy Sakaki, who has faced calls to resign amid a sexual harassment and retaliation scandal involving her and her now-estranged husband, announced Monday that she is stepping down.

“Serving as Sonoma State President has truly been an honor,” Sakaki said in a news release from the California State University system. “After thoughtful reflection and discussions with my family, I made the decision to step away as president of this wonderful campus.”

She will depart July 31, six years after she took over as president at the Rohnert Park campus, becoming the nation’s first Japanese American woman to lead a four-year university.

Read the news release announcing Sakaki’s resignation here.

The announcement came nearly eight weeks after The Press Democrat first reported California State University paid a $600,000 settlement in January to a former Sonoma State provost to resolve a retaliation claim related to sexual harassment complaints from several female university employees against Sakaki’s husband, education lobbyist Patrick McCallum.

Sakaki faced growing pressure on and off campus to step down. After she lost a no-confidence vote of the faculty in early May, she skipped two of the university’s most high-profile spring events, an open house for prospective students and graduation ceremonies.

North Bay State Sens. Bill Dodd and Mike McGuire, who had previously called on Sakaki to resign, applauded her decision Monday.

“President Sakaki has made the right decision to step aside,” the two lawmakers said in a joint statement. “Today’s action will allow the Sonoma State community to start the healing process and return its focus to the university’s core mission — its students.”

Sakaki’s resignation comes amid widening criticism about California State University’s handling of reports of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior at its 23-campus network, the largest four-year university system in the nation.

Sakaki, 69, has worked in higher education, in both the California State and University of California systems, for four decades.

But her leadership of SSU has been embroiled in controversy since April 13, when The Press Democrat reported on the $600,000 settlement paid by the state system to settle a claim with a former SSU provost.

Lisa Vollendorf, the provost, alleged Sakaki retaliated against her after she reported the sexual harassment complaints about McCallum to the CSU Chancellor’s Office in late 2018. Vollendorf is now the incoming president of State University New York Empire State College.

She has not responded to multiple requests for comment over the past eight weeks.

Current and former administrators said McCallum made the women uncomfortable with lingering hugs, by staring at women’s breasts, and in at least two instances described to The Press Democrat, brushing hair off their faces in an overly familiar way.

Sakaki, who denies any retaliation occurred, announced her separation from McCallum on April 18 and disavowed private and public statements he’s made defending himself and addressing media reports.

McCallum, an official campus volunteer, has apologized for what he described as “gregarious” behavior and said he became more careful with additional training and experience as the spouse of a university president. He denies, however, that he ever acted with sexual intentions.

Sakaki made no mention of the controversy in her announcement Monday.

“I care deeply about Sonoma State and believe this choice will allow the campus community to move forward in a timely manner,” she said. “I am incredibly grateful to the entire SSU and the North Bay communities for the opportunity to serve during such a challenging and transformative time at Sonoma State.”

Sakaki is among Sonoma County’s highest paid public officials, earning $324,052, with an additional $60,000 annual housing. She did not specify what she planned to do next, beyond “continuing my work with the various higher education boards and commissions on which I currently serve, and engaging with projects that focus on educational equity, access and inclusion.”

Sakaki espoused close cooperation between administration and faculty, especially early in her tenure, and reveled in meeting and greeting students.

But she kept a low profile in the past two months as the scandal involving her widened.

She was a no-show both at Seawolf Decision Day, an annual showcase for incoming and prospective students, and at graduation May 21 and 22 — two key events over which she would normally preside.

Sakaki’s critics said the scandal hobbled her ability to lead at a time when the university faces an alarming enrollment decline and a budget deficit of between $15.5 million and $17 million.

Sonoma State faculty passed a vote of no confidence in Sakaki’s leadership on May 9. Dodd and McGuire called that day for her to step down.

Napoleon Reyes, a faculty member of Sonoma State’s criminology and criminal justice studies department and a proponent of the no-confidence effort, called Sakaki’s resignation “a step in the right direction.”

Steve Estes, professor and chair of the History Department at Sonoma State who voted in favor of the no-confidence resolution, said he was thankful for Sakaki’s service, but said she had made the right decision.

“It’s the right call … I very much appreciate it so that the university can move forward,” he said.

Reyes, who is also the new president of the Sonoma chapter of the California Faculty Association, said the scandal had undermined Sakaki’s leadership.

“She finally recognized it would have been difficult for her to continue leading the university,” he said. “The big challenge now is to make sure that all the stakeholders (faculty, staff and students) at Sonoma State will have a voice in the process of selecting her replacement.”

He said he would prefer someone who “rose from the ranks of faculty,” someone familiar with the unique perspectives of faculty as opposed to a “management person.”

“Every time you appoint someone from a management background, they tend to overlook issues affecting faculty and students,” said Reyes, adding that he hopes to see new policies implemented at both Sonoma State and the CSU system aimed at preventing sexual harassment and the mishandling of Title IX cases.

State lawmakers recently called for a sweeping audit of the CSU sexual harassment policies that will examine CSU’s handling of sexual harassment and violence allegations.

McGuire and Dodd echoed that call in their statement Monday.

“There remain deep cultural challenges within the Cal State system and change is long overdue,” they said. “There have been too many circumstances where women have been harassed, intimidated and retaliated against. We implore the incoming chancellor to make this glaring issue their top priority and advance change that we can all believe in and reestablish trust.”

The CSU system is still reckoning with the February resignation of Chancellor Joseph Castro, who faced criticism for his handling of sexual harassment complaints against an administrator when he was president of Fresno State.

Castro allowed Frank Lamas, the vice president of student affairs, to retire instead of fully investigating the complaints, according to news reports. Castro has rejected those reports and contends he took appropriate action, launching two investigations and ultimately ordering Lamas to step down as vice president.

In the wake of those reports, the CSU launched an independent assessment of its own practices around Title IX, the federal law that prohibits discrimination in educational settings.

Sakaki’s response to complaints about her husband’s behavior has been the focus of extensive coverage in The Press Democrat, as well as the Los Angeles Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

A former director at the Green Music Center said he tried to warn Sakaki about McCallum’s behavior with staff as far back as August 2016, but that Sakaki took no action in response.

Gordon McDougall, former interim vice president of university advancement, said he took steps to rearrange staff schedules to shield female staff members from having to work with McCallum during his tenure.

On Monday, a senior administrator who was among the women who complained about McCallum’s behavior in 2019 said news of the leadership change left her hopeful.

“Sonoma State really has the potential to be a model public liberal arts college in California and I look forward to it living up to its potential,” she said. “The most important thing is, I hope the CSU takes the opportunity to rethink the policy that gives the spouse of the president special access to campus.”

PD Columnist Marisa Endicott contributed reporting.

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

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

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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