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Sonoma State President Sakaki faces even steeper uphill battle after Sens. Dodd, McGuire ask her to step down

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.

Even as Sonoma State University President Judy Sakaki was calling for a time of healing in the immediate aftermath of a faculty no-confidence vote against her Monday, she lost the support of two men who should be her biggest political allies.

State Sens. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, and Bill Dodd, D-Napa, called on her to step down immediately after the vote, in which 62% of the faculty members who participated said they no longer had faith in Sakaki.

Faculty no-confidence votes are not uncommon in academia and often illustrate the historic cultural rift between university administrators and professors.

However, the loss of support from McGuire and Dodd could cripple her ability to overcome what has become the most tumultuous period of her career, a period that started with revelations that the university had paid a $600,000 settlement to a former provost who had reported complaints of sexual harassment against Sakaki’s husband.

The news of the settlement was first reported by The Press Democrat on April 13.

For full coverage of the SSU investigation, click here.

Dodd and McGuire — both California State University alumni — say their main priority is the academic future of the nearly half million students at Sonoma State and the other 22 CSU campuses that comprise the nation’s largest and most diverse four-year university system.

“This is not personal,” said Dodd, a Chico State graduate. “This is totally professional, analyzing the situation and her ability to do the best job that those students and faculty members deserve to have done — and alumni and donors deserve to have done — at the school. I just don’t think she can do it.”

McGuire, who graduated from Sonoma State in 2002 and was recognized by the school as a distinguished alumnus in 2015, said it’s time for a culture change at his alma mater and the rest of the CSU system.

“The university needs the opportunity to refocus on what’s important, that’s the mission, its mission to educate students,” McGuire said.

He added the scandal involving Sakaki’s now-estranged husband, lobbyist Patrick McCallum, is a “huge distraction” that’s hobbling the university.

The hiring and firing of a CSU president, he said, is ultimately the decision of the CSU chancellor and Board of Trustees. “But I felt it was important, especially as an alumnus, to speak up,” McGuire said. “And I firmly believe that this fall, students should come back to a university that’s free of controversy.”

Sakaki declined a request for an in-person or phone interview. Larry Kamer, a spokesperson for Sakaki, also declined comment.

“We’ve already said what we’re going to say about senators Dodd and McGuire,” he said.

For his part, Dodd said Sakaki faces insurmountable damage for her handling of sexual harassment allegations against her husband, which came as the university faces a crippling budget deficit of $15.5 million to $17 million and a 24% decline in enrollment.

McGuire acknowledged the virtues of forgiveness, but he made it clear he thought Sonoma State would be better off moving forward without Sakaki at the helm.

These are strong words coming from state lawmakers whose local support is ideal, if not crucial, given the state Legislature controls the CSU system’s purse strings.

McGuire, the Senate majority leader, sits on the education committee, and Gov. Gavin Newsom, Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon are ex officio CSU trustees.

CSU leadership in Long Beach is paying attention to recent developments at Sonoma State.

“A vote of no-confidence by the faculty, statements made by our elected officials, as well as the totality of a president’s achievements, are collectively and thoughtfully considered when the Trustees or the Chancellor evaluate the effectiveness of campus leadership,” CSU spokesperson Michael Uhlenkamp said this week.

Dave McCuan, chair of Sonoma State’s Political Science department, said he believes the senators’ call for Sakaki to step down will cripple Sakaki’s credibility when it comes to making the fiscal case for such things as one-time funding for infrastructure work.

That one-time funding for capital projects, upgrades and deferred maintenance previously went through the CSU Board of Trustees, said Uhlenkamp. But this year, CSU presidents and administrators seeking such funds are being asked to hit up their legislative representatives.

“Given California’s current unique fiscal situation with the state boasting its largest-ever surplus of funds, campuses have been advised to work with their local delegations to seek one-time funding in support of individual infrastructure projects that had been previously approved by the Board of Trustees,” Uhlenkamp said in an email.

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.

McCuan, who supported the no-confidence vote, said “there might be some tension” in Sakaki’s requests for one-time funds when the gatekeepers for those funds have said “you need to go.”

The loss of support from Dodd and McGuire “makes a huge difference, because it sends a signal to the community, to legislators, to the governor, to others around the system, the lieutenant governor, to Long Beach and the Board of Trustees that things are not copacetic at Sonoma State — that the ability to lead is broken. You can’t just keep throwing money on a bad bet. You have to call for accountability,” he said.

The scandal that has enveloped Sakaki comes amid a period of reckoning for the CSU system, which is currently under intense scrutiny for its handling of sexual harassment allegations involving multiple administrators and several campuses. 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.

Assembly Member Rudy Salas, chair of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, in a May 2 news release cited recent news reports about CSU’s handing of sexual harassment allegations, including the $600,000 settlement CSU paid to settle a retaliation claim by former Sonoma State Provost Lisa Vollendorf, who reported the sexual harassment allegations involving McCallum.

The legislative audit comes amid the ongoing fallout over the February resignation of Chancellor Joseph Castro, who has been criticized for his handling of sexual harassment complaints against an administrator when he was president of Fresno State University. According to reports, Castro allowed Frank Lamas, the vice president of student affairs, to retire instead of adequately investigating the complaints.

Castro rejects those reports and contends that he took appropriate action, launching two investigations and ultimately ordering Lamas to step down as vice president.

Former State Sen. Noreen Evans said Dodd and McGuire’s request for Sakaki to relinquish her post was both unusual and significant. Evans said she could not comment on the specifics of the allegations against McCallum or their veracity.

But she said many are likely to appreciate Dodd and McGuire’s “stand as men against any kind of sexual harassment.”

“It's significant to the women of the community that they're willing to stand up and be counted,” Evans said. “And it's also significant in that it is unusual for a legislator to call for the resignation of a high-level official. I can't comment on the truth of any of this. But their request is a significant one.”

Not all agree that Sakaki should step down.

Jean Bee Chan, a board member of the Sonoma State University Foundation and an emeritus math and statistics professor, expressed her disappointment in the senators’ stance. In a May 11 letter to McGuire, in which Dodd was copied, Chan called on McGuire to “provide support for Dr. Judy Sakaki, president of SSU, to continue her strong leadership instead of calling her to resign.”

In her letter, Chan cited Sakaki’s accomplishments, including increasing the graduation rate for transfer students and instituting changes that have made the university finances more transparent. Chan said the “historic nature” of Sakaki’s career, as the first Japanese American woman in the nation to lead a four-year university, should be acknowledged.

“As an Asian American and an immigrant to this country, I am proud to call Dr. Judy Sakaki my colleague at Sonoma State University,” Chan wrote. “I am very disappointed that you took a negative stand toward her. Please stop calling President Sakaki to resign but instead (provide) her and our campus support during this challenging time.”

Dodd and McGuire insist their main concern is the education of students.

“Look, I am totally sad by this entire situation,” Dodd said. “But it’s become abundantly clear to me that President Sakaki needs to step down for the good of Sonoma State University and the greater community. As the representative of Sonoma State University and the community, I feel like I should have my opinion known.”

Dodd said all leaders need to be held to the highest standard, especially in education. “It's a serious problem to create an atmosphere that can dissuade victims of harassment from coming forward,” he said. “I just feel like that's what's happened there.”

With only a week left before Sonoma State’s graduation, some students are anxious of how the turmoil surrounding Sakaki is going to affect commencement ceremonies.

Emma Rose Molloy, 23, said some students are saying they’ll turn their backs to Sakaki when she speaks or makes an appearance.

“Her being there is going to be really upsetting for people,” Molloy said. “Several students have said to me or spoken in the classroom that if she’s going to be at graduation, they are considering not going.”

Molloy, a communications and journalism major, said she’s expected to graduate in December or next spring. After news of the $600,000 settlement broke, Molloy launched a moveon.org campaign calling on Sakaki to step down.

The online petition has so far been signed by 1,062 people.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to include statements by former CSU Chancellor Joseph Castro, who rejects claims that he did not adequately investigate allegations of sexual harassment against an administrator while he was president of Fresno State University.

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

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