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