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Sonoma State President Sakaki addresses Academic Senate about alleged sexual harassment, retaliation claims

The Sonoma State president said she was “embarrassed” by allegations at the heart of what she called the “most difficult personnel challenge in my entire 40-plus-year career” in higher education.|

Sonoma State University President Judy Sakaki on Thursday apologized to members of the school’s Academic Senate for the negative attention brought to the school by news of a $600,000 settlement with a former top administrator over sexual harassment allegations against Sakaki’s husband.

The revelations, first reported by The Press Democrat, detailed how the California State University system paid the settlement in January to former Provost Lisa Vollendorf to resolve a dispute related to staff complaints of sexual harassment involving Sakaki’s husband, Patrick McCallum.

Vollendorf accused Sakaki of retaliation for making the reports to the university system about several female staff members’ complaints.

“I’m really sorry,” Sakaki said. “I’m sorry that we as a campus community, that this kind of sensational story takes precedence, takes the lead, takes our time, takes your energy … I really feel badly about that. I’m embarrassed. This was and has been the most difficult personnel challenge in my entire 40-plus-year career.”

Appearing before the Zoom audience of faculty members, Sakaki began by reading a previously released written statement in which she insisted that she had not retaliated against Vollendorf and called the former provost’s claims “without basis.”

She said the claims of sexual harassment had been investigated by the university system — not Sonoma State or officials under her supervision — and that she was told “that there was no finding.”

McCallum has denied any wrongful conduct.

Still, several faculty members who attended the regularly scheduled virtual meeting of the Academic Senate, the university’s main governing body for faculty, expressed concerns over Sakaki’s handling of the matter.

Napoleon Reyes, chair of the school’s criminology and criminal justice department, asked why McCallum was allowed access to the campus given the nature of the allegations against him.

“With all these complaints, why was your husband allowed to continue coming to campus?” he said.

A campus spokeswoman told The Press Democrat on Wednesday the complaints involved touching and conversations that made the affected employees uncomfortable.

Sakaki said she was not aware of the allegations until after the university system’s Title IX officer had completed their interviews with staff.

“I didn’t know, I wasn’t briefed on the situation until much after, and then when I was told, I was told that there was an investigation done by the Title IX person. I didn’t know that. I didn’t know that the Title IX officer came to campus and spoke to people and then I was told that there was no finding.”

Lauren Morimoto, chair of the faculty and head of the kinesiology department, said she was concerned about the impact the scandal would have on the university, at a time when the school is trying to recruit tenure-track faculty and incoming students.

“I’m going to be a part of that and sell the hell out of the university,” she said. “Because we need the enrollment … if people ask, I’ll tell them honestly what I think. I think it’s embarrassing. I think it’s inexcusable. It’s troubling and it’s shocking.”

But Morimoto said her focus is to help get the university beyond the current crisis. “If people feel very strongly that there should be this vote of no confidence and I should be leading it, then maybe I’m not the right person to lead right now,” she said.

“I want to look forward and I don’t want to get caught up in you know, who did what, except to know for reasons of accountability and who we need to hold accountable,” she said.

Ed Beebout, chair of the communications and media studies department, said he was concerned about how students, staff and faculty would interpret the university’s response to the harassment allegations and the university’s handling of them. He stressed that he had not made up his mind about the matter and that he appreciated Sakaki’s willingness to respond to faculty concerns.

“Anybody who reads the stories are going to — if they’ve ever had a situation of sexual harassment on campus, for instance — this could have a chilling effect on their willingness to come forward,” he said. “In other words, do they think the university will have their back.”

Erma Jean Sims, president of the California Faculty Association at Sonoma State, said the union is calling on the California Legislature to investigate Title IX compliance across the university system.

Union officials will be circulating a petition on each of the 23 campuses in the system, Sims said.

“We have little or no confidence the trustees will do a complete, thorough and transparent investigation,” Sims said.

Some faculty members felt it was important to address the controversy with their students.

In an email sent Thursday morning, School of Business Economics Dean Jean-Francois Coget wrote: “The Press Democrat and the LA Times have reported on deeply troubling allegations of sexual harassment and retaliation at SSU. While I don’t know the specifics of what may or may not have happened, I am heartbroken that sexual harassment still occurs in today’s society. It is our duty to pursue justice courageously and protect victims. The CSU also has important work to do in ameliorating its processes, and we all have room to grow as leaders.”

Coget, who did not attend Thursday’s meeting, said his “heart goes to those who may feel confused or distraught. The disasters happening around us remind me of our human frailty. We must support each other in this distressing time. I will keep you updated as I learn more about this situation.”

The Sonoma State campus was quiet Thursday, with fewer students, faculty and staff on hand than normal. A daylong rainstorm and a campuswide power failure forced the cancellation of in-person classes and closure of several offices, including administration headquarters.

Several students interviewed Thursday morning were unaware of the controversy surrounding Sakaki and her husband. Others said they’d heard about it through email and social media, and at least one said he heard about it from his department dean.

Students and faculty were all brought up to speed, though, with a statement released by the university in the afternoon, which echoed most of the assertions in Sakaki’s statement about the situation with Vollendorf.

Venecia Flores-Avina, a 22-year-old fourth year business major, said she was shocked and saddened after her sorority sisters clued her in just before 6 p.m. Wednesday. By 9 p.m. she was having conversations about it with other students.

“It was very much unexpected, everyone was pretty much in shock,” Florez-Avina said, adding that she feels it will be difficult for Sakaki to overcome the controversy but that she hopes the president can.

Sakaki has led the roughly 7,000-student, four-year university in Rohnert Park since 2016.

“Everyone I know loved Judy,” Florez-Avina said. “I do root for her and I do want what is best for this campus.”

Other students said they were not surprised by the news.

Citlali Pinzon, a third-year SSU student, learned the news from an Instagram post. “I’m not super surprised because stuff like this happens all the time,” Pinzon said. “It’s not the first time I’ve heard of SSU covering up stuff like this.”

Pinzon said she feels powerless to do anything about the issue. “At the end of the day I’m a student and we can’t really do (expletive) about it,” she said. “It feels like nothing can be done about it.”

On campus Thursday, students continued to express disappointment in Sakaki.

Ambar Gutierrez, a fourth year Sonoma State student, said the scandal only cemented certain feelings she had about Sakaki. “I’ve been here for four years and I’ve only seen her like twice,” Gutierrez said. “She doesn’t really have a presence on campus… I know she gets a ton of money but she doesn’t really do anything.”

Gutierrez said, “It seems like she’s just protecting her husband because she doesn’t want her and her family to look bad. It feels like she’s just covering it up.”

Moragh Graf, also a fourth year student, said the settlement gives the impression there is some validity to the allegations of sexual harassment. She said she heard about it on Instagram.

“It’s super suspicious that they gave her money,” Graf said. “That really makes it seem like something bad did happen.”

Press Democrat intern Kylie Lawrence contributed reporting to this story. 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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