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Sonoma State University administrator who reported sexual harassment by President Sakaki’s husband: ‘It was really bad’

How to contact the reporters

The Press Democrat continues to dig into the Sonoma State University controversy. Three reporters are reviewing public documents and seeking greater transparency from SSU officials and leaders in the Cal State system. If you have questions, tips or suggestions, please contact them directly.

Kaylee Tornay

707-521-5250, kaylee.tornay@pressdemocrat.com

Martin Espinoza

707-521-5213, martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com

Marisa Endicott

707-521-5470, marisa.endicott@pressdemocrat.com

Sonoma State University Title IX Resources

•SSU Title IX Compliance Office: 707-664-4140 or ophd@sonoma.edu.

•SSU Victim's Advocate: 707-664-2698 or susan.pulido@sonoma.edu.

•SSU Human Resources Whistleblower contact, Erin Taylor, Director of Employee and Labor Relations: 707-664-2212 or erin.taylor@sonoma.edu

“Emotionally exhausted.”

“Disappointed.”

“Demoralized.”

That’s how faculty, staff and students at Sonoma State University described their shock over last week’s revelations of a $600,000 state settlement paid to a former top SSU administrator in January after complaints about alleged sexual harassment by SSU President Judy Sakaki’s husband.

Reactions to the controversy and questions about Sakaki’s husband and her leadership erupted across the Rohnert Park campus and reverberated to the California State University headquarters in Long Beach. The turmoil was punctuated by an emotional online meeting Thursday of the Sonoma State Academic Senate.

Sakaki said she was embarrassed by how the situation has engulfed the school she has led since 2016.

Revelations of the settlement, first reported by The Press Democrat on Wednesday, have underscored growing discontent around Sakaki and her leadership and left many on campus feeling demoralized, faculty and administrators say.

Some are questioning if Sakaki can keep her job.

“It comes at a time when we need to believe in leadership,” said Ellen Carlton, a professor of kinesiology who has been a member of the Sonoma State faculty since the 1990s. The former faculty rights chair for the California Faculty Association said many faculty members were left “stunned” after Sakaki addressed the Academic Senate on Thursday afternoon.

“A lot of people are still trying to process and figure out: Do they want Judy here? Do they not want Judy here?” said Lauren Morimoto, who chairs the kinesiology department. “Can she lead after this? I don’t know.”

The $600,000 payout went to Lisa Vollendorf, a provost who left Sonoma State in 2020. About a year earlier, she reported to CSU officials sexual harassment complaints raised by several female SSU employees involving Sakaki’s husband, Patrick McCallum.

Two of the women spoke to The Press Democrat last week. One said McCallum had acted “creepy” and made her feel uncomfortable. Another said she took steps not to be alone with McCallum at social events.

Vollendorf’s report, and the ensuing CSU investigation, triggered “a campaign of retaliation” from Sakaki — including actions the former provost said violated an agreement the two women reached to arrange Vollendorf’s transfer to the CSU Chancellor’s Office, according to Vollendorf’s July 2021 claim with the college system.

Sakaki has denied accusations of retaliation. McCallum, a veteran Sacramento lobbyist considered by the CSU to be an official volunteer and ambassador for the campus, also issued a blanket denial Wednesday disputing he had engaged in “any wrongful conduct toward anyone.”

The complaints involved touching and conversations that made the affected employees uncomfortable, a university spokeswoman told The Press Democrat.

The CSU determined the conduct reported “would not likely constitute sexual harassment by policy’s standards,” said Julia Gonzalez, Sonoma State’s assistant vice president for strategic communications.

On Friday afternoon, McCallum issued an apology.

“I want to apologize to anyone who has felt uncomfortable in my presence or through my actions,” he said in a statement to The Press Democrat. “It was never my intent to act disrespectfully, but it's clear that I made some people uncomfortable. For that, I'm truly sorry.”

Two employees share their accounts

McCallum’s statement came in response to questions sent by Press Democrat reporters about experiences recounted by two female Sonoma State employees who were interviewed by a CSU investigator who looked into Vollendorf’s report.

The women shared details of their experiences in separate interviews. Both spoke under the condition of anonymity, saying they feared retaliation that could negatively affect their careers.

One woman, a senior administrator, characterized McCallum’s behavior toward her as harassment. The other staff member called it “creepy,” but said she did not consider it at the time to be harassment.

Neither of them decided to push for a comprehensive investigation in 2019, after doing initial interviews with a CSU investigator charged with ensuring the system’s compliance with Title IX, the federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in education.

The administrator said it was because she was worried Sakaki and McCallum would learn her identity and she would be vulnerable to retaliation.

The staff member said she didn’t think her experience merited further investigation.

The senior administrator said she was uncomfortable from the first meeting she had with McCallum, at a fundraising event in 2018 at the Green Music Center on the university’s campus. He stood close to her throughout the evening, frequently drawing her to the side for private conversation, she said.

The interactions disquieted her enough to bring a guest to the next event where she knew McCallum would be, hoping he would leave her alone. That seemed to work, she said.

But at the next fundraising event, where the administrator again turned up alone, she said, McCallum began paying close attention to her.

At one point during a conversation, she said, he brushed a lock of hair off her forehead — what felt to her like a “very intimate gesture” in front of the other guests, which included potential donors.

“It was really bad,” she said. “I’m a serious person. I’m a scholar … and I’m here for intellectual reasons.”

She worried about how others might perceive the attention McCallum was showing her, she said. “People are going to think we’re having an affair.”

The administrator mentioned the experience to Vollendorf in the days that followed, she said, though she hadn’t intended the conversation to be an official report of sexual harassment at the time.

“I would say that too much of the culture at Sonoma State is a matter of secrecy as a matter of course, instead of transparency.” — Sonoma State University senior administrator who claims she was sexually harassed by Patrick McCallum

But Vollendorf told her she would need to report it to CSU officials.

In January 2019, Linda Hoos, the CSU Title IX officer at the time, reached out to the Sonoma State administrator, wanting to talk. They spoke a few days later.

Shortly thereafter, Hoos sent case notes summarizing the important points from their conversations to the administrator.

The administrator said the transcript did not accurately reflect how seriously she took the experiences. She provided her own summary of the conversation and did not sign Hoos’ copy.

The other woman, a staff member, declined to elaborate on her interactions with McCallum out of fear the details would identify her.

But she said he would frequently make unusual demands of her time for errands that benefited him and Sakaki, and when met with resistance, McCallum would say things such as, “Does it mean anything that I’m sleeping with the president?”

The staff member also spoke with the Title IX officer in January 2019. She felt her own experiences were not worth investigating as harassment at the time, she said.

Over time, she said, she’s grown less certain that what she experienced wasn’t harassment, which the university system defines as “unwelcome verbal, nonverbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.”

She noted that she tried to avoid McCallum after their interactions, including not being alone with him in any setting.

The staff member and the senior administrator had spoken to each other about McCallum in 2019 and corroborated each others’ stories. The Press Democrat also spoke with another employee at Sonoma State who confirmed details of the senior administrator’s story.

Fears cloud investigation

Fear of retaliation is a common deterrent for employees moving forward with formal investigations, said Laura Dunn, a national expert on Title IX and founding partner at L.L. Dunn Law Firm in Washington, D.C.

Outlining specific protections against retaliation is one of the first and most critical duties of a Title IX investigator, she said.

“I don't think schools proactively think about and consider what protection against retaliation would actually look like. What does that actually mean?” Dunn said. “If they don't have an answer for that, I don't blame survivors for being worried that even if they did offer retaliation protection, that may not be sufficient.”

The senior administrator, a veteran in her field, said she feared for her job if she decided to press for stronger action to address McCallum's behavior.

Outcry over CSU’s handling of Title IX investigations continues to grow. The nation’s largest four-year college system is dealing with the abrupt departure of its top leader amid furor over mismanagement of complaints about staff misconduct.

On the heels of a USA TODAY investigation, former Chancellor Joseph Castro resigned in February amid criticism over accusations he mishandled sexual abuse and misconduct allegations during his time as president of Fresno State University.

The Sonoma State revelations prompted on Thursday the California Faculty Association, the labor union for professors and instructors in the 23-campus college system, to call for an independent investigation by state legislators into the CSU’s compliance with Title IX.

Morimoto said she thought it was important to learn more about why the CSU Title IX office was solely involved in investigating Vollendorf’s 2018 report, and Sonoma State’s office was apparently left out of the process.

“I think the CSU is screwed up,” she said. “It makes me wonder, what is this system doing? I don’t understand how they’re processing things and what it would take for our system to recognize something as harassment.”

Ed Beebout, chair of Sonoma State’s communications and media studies department, expressed concerns Thursday about how students, staff and faculty who read details of the controversy would interpret the university’s response to the harassment allegations.

“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,” Beebout said.

Faculty in an Academic Senate meeting Thursday grilled Sakaki with questions about what she knew of the Title IX investigation as it unfolded in 2019. Napoleon Reyes, chair of the school’s criminology and criminal justice department, asked why McCallum continued to be a presence on campus while under investigation.

“If that would have been a staff (member), a student, a faculty (member), immediately a preventive suspension to protect the complainant would have been done, but that did not happen in this case,” Reyes said.

Sakaki told faculty she had no knowledge of the allegations until after the CSU Title IX officer completed her interviews with staff.

“I wasn't briefed on the situation until much, much after,” Sakaki said. “And then I was told that there was no finding. So, I was directed by the chancellor to simply make myself aware and make my husband aware that there were concerns.”

Vollendorf, who has not responded to Press Democrat calls or emails this week, said in her 2021 claim that after Sakaki was informed about reports against McCallum, she began “a campaign of retaliation.” Among her complaints: Sakaki limited the scope of Vollendorf’s job duties and required her to undergo “inappropriate and unprofessional therapeutic ‘coaching’ by an untrained therapist.”

Sakaki has denied any allegations of retaliation, saying in two statements this week Vollendorf’s claims were “utterly without basis.”

Sakaki, 69, a graduate of California State University East Bay with a doctorate in education from UC Berkeley, has worked 40 years in higher education, including administrative positions within California State University and the University of California systems. She was previously vice president at Fresno State, vice chancellor at UC Davis and vice president for student affairs for the UC system.

McCallum, 68, is head of the Sacramento-based lobbying and consulting firm the McCallum Group. He has specialized in higher education, and previously was executive director for the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges.

McCallum and Sakaki were married in 2016. Each have adult children from previous marriages.

In 2017, they barely escaped with their lives as the Tubbs fire overran their block in Fountaingrove, forcing the couple to flee their home barefoot at about 4 a.m., when they were rescued by a passing firefighter.

Harassment fallout

The female administrator who said McCallum brushed her hair away from her face at the fundraising event, said she also felt a shift after Sakaki became aware of the CSU Title IX inquiry.

Fundraising is a major piece of the administrator’s role, but the avenues by which she was allowed to do it became more and more limited, she said. She recalled one key meeting in October 2019 with a donor who the school hoped would help to expand a program in her department.

After the dinner happened, she discovered she had not been invited, and another single female administrator in the department had also not been asked to join. McCallum, however, had been present, she said.

It troubled her enough to prompt her to reach back out to Hoos at the Title IX office.

The Press Democrat reviewed a copy of a December 2019 email Hoos sent in response to the administrator’s concerns. In it, the Title IX officer said that McCallum, as the spouse of the president, was “expected — and welcome — to perform his duties as a university volunteer,” especially since her office had received no additional complaints about his behavior.

“Why is he even there, was my point,” the administrator said. “I kept thinking I was being gaslit.”

Being sidelined caused her to retreat further from her fundraising activity and focus on other duties, she said. And when the onset of the pandemic closed campus, most of her public-facing duties ground to a halt.

The shutdown also extinguished any hope she had of SSU addressing the matter head-on.

After hearing of McCallum’s apology Friday, she said, “It’s a first step.”

“I would say that too much of the culture at Sonoma State is a matter of secrecy as a matter of course, instead of transparency,” she said.

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

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

Reach PD Columnist Marisa Endicott at 707-521-5470 or marisa.endicott@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @InYourCornerTPD

How to contact the reporters

The Press Democrat continues to dig into the Sonoma State University controversy. Three reporters are reviewing public documents and seeking greater transparency from SSU officials and leaders in the Cal State system. If you have questions, tips or suggestions, please contact them directly.

Kaylee Tornay

707-521-5250, kaylee.tornay@pressdemocrat.com

Martin Espinoza

707-521-5213, martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com

Marisa Endicott

707-521-5470, marisa.endicott@pressdemocrat.com

Sonoma State University Title IX Resources

•SSU Title IX Compliance Office: 707-664-4140 or ophd@sonoma.edu.

•SSU Victim's Advocate: 707-664-2698 or susan.pulido@sonoma.edu.

•SSU Human Resources Whistleblower contact, Erin Taylor, Director of Employee and Labor Relations: 707-664-2212 or erin.taylor@sonoma.edu

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.  

Marisa Endicott

“In Your Corner” Columnist, The Press Democrat

Born and raised in Northern California, I'm dedicated to getting to know all its facets and helping track down the answers to tough questions. I want to use my experience as a journalist and an investigator to shine a light on local systems, policies and practices so residents have the information they need to advocate for the changes they want to see. I’m passionate about centering the many voices in the communities I cover, and I want readers to guide my work.

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