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In reversal, Sonoma State says student tuition will help pay for $600,000 settlement over harassment reports

Nearly half of the $600,000 settlement Sonoma State University entered into with a former provost to settle a retaliation claim linked to President Judy Sakaki will be paid by the school, the campus announced Monday.

The university sent out its message to all employees and students to provide clarification about the settlement amount covered by its insurance versus the amount to be paid by the school.

Funds drawn from student tuition and fees, along with other sources, will be used to cover $250,000 — SSU’s insurance deductible — according to the campus announcement.

It was a reversal from remarks made two weeks ago by a campus spokeswoman, who had stressed that no tuition or student fees would be tapped to cover the settlement.

Sakaki and SSU spokeswoman Julia Gonzalez, assistant vice president for strategic communications, did not answer questions Monday about the campus announcement and what led to it.

The university said the announcement followed “additional review of Sonoma State’s participation in the (California State University) self-insurance risk financing program.”

The remainder of the settlement is set to be paid through the shared insurance pool for the 23-campus CSU system.

The update comes as the school faces a $15 million to $17 million deficit, fueling a contentious budget process in which positions and programs are on the line. On Thursday, the Academic Senate will weigh a potential faculty vote of no confidence in Sakaki’s leadership.

Talena Sanders, an associate professor in the Communications and Media department involved with the effort to pass the no-confidence vote, called news of the additional costs to SSU “distressing.”

“Students and their families don’t choose Sonoma State to help foot the bill for the president’s inappropriate behavior,” she said in a text message. “To be frank, I am wondering how many more headlines and revelations our campus will have to weather before President Sakaki will choose ethics over ego and resign.”

Lisa Vollendorf, who was provost at Sonoma State University from 2017 to June 2020, received the $600,000 settlement to resolve a July 2021 claim she filed with the CSU system. Her claim stated Sakaki retaliated against her in response to reports Vollendorf made of sexual harassment complaints by SSU female employees against Patrick McCallum, Sakaki’s husband.

Sakaki has denied retaliation and McCallum has denied wrongdoing. Sakaki has declined repeated interview requests since The Press Democrat first reported the settlement April 13. On Saturday, she was absent from the Rohnert Park campus’ spring showcase for prospective students.

Gonzalez said Sonoma State agreed to the $600,000 settlement because officials wanted to “avoid the need for costly and protracted litigation,” but the settlement itself was not an admission of wrongdoing.

Of the total amount, $500,000 will go directly to Vollendorf, according to the agreement, and $100,000 will go to cover her attorney’s fees.

Previously, Gonzalez had told The Press Democrat that no student tuition or fees would be used to cover the cost of the settlement.

“It’s really important that people know that the settlement is not paid from any student tuition or fees,” Gonzalez said on April 13. “The university has insurance to cover settlements such as this.”

However, Monday’s announcement said the funds used to cover the deductible “are, in fact, funded through revenue sources that include student tuition and fees, and enterprise activities such as parking, student housing fees, professional and continuing education, and retail functions.”

Most of the deductible — $150,000 — will come from a line item geared toward covering potential legal settlements, according to the statement. The remaining $100,000 “is anticipated to come from a contingency line item in the university’s budget,” Sonoma State’s message said.

The Press Democrat asked for more information about revenue sources for those line items but did not receive a response from the university Monday.

Tim Smith, an adjunct professor and former Rohnert Park mayor, said the university’s original statements about the role insurance would play in covering the settlement costs were misleading.

“The whole concept that it was cost-free, as was the implication in the April 13 statement, was ludicrous,” he said. Seeing the update about the deductible Monday, he wondered, “Who made them ‘fess up?”

Sonoma State pays into the CSU system’s Risk Management Authority, “an insurance pool that funds the resolution of claims,” according to the campus message.

Smith, a local attorney, pointed out that six-figure settlement is likely to lead to higher insurance rates for Sonoma State.

“I don’t know why (this news came out), I’m just glad it did,” he said. “I don’t know who has sought to educate them to be more clear.”

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

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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