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