SSU Academic Senate committee advances no-confidence vote on Sakaki’s leadership
A committee of Sonoma State University’s Academic Senate took a preliminary, but key step Thursday in a process that could result in the school’s faculty taking a vote of no confidence in the leadership of embattled university President Judy Sakaki.
The 17-member executive committee, a mix of students, professors and administrators, voted to put a resolution on the agenda for the Senate session on April 28.
Sakaki, who is a member of the executive committee, did not appear to be in attendance at the meeting, which was closed to the press. The vote was unanimous, according to faculty sources.
“I’m glad that this process is being allowed to move forward transparently,” said Talena Sanders, one of the faculty members who brought the resolution forward to the executive committee. “I’m hopeful that the entire faculty will get to have a voice on this matter.”
A few hours earlier, Sakaki, SSU’s president since 2016, sent an 1,800-word email to the campus community that only alluded to the retaliation and sexual harassment scandal that has ensnared her, her husband Patrick McCallum and rocked the Rohnert Park campus since last week.
She gave no indication she would be bowing to pressure from those questioning whether she could continue to lead the university.
“It’s springtime, a season that symbolizes new beginnings and transformations,” she wrote, going on to lay out an ambitious to-do list of proposals, sounding very much like a person prepared to fight for her job.
The executive committee’s vote occurred two days before Seawolf Decision Day, a campus open house for prospective students and their parents, and nine days after The Press Democrat first reported revelations that the California State University system paid a $600,000 settlement in January to a former provost, Lisa Vollendorf, to resolve a dispute related to sexual harassment complaints against McCallum lodged by female SSU employees.
Earlier this week, Sakaki, 69, announced she was separating from McCallum. She also disavowed private and public statements McCallum made defending himself and addressing media reports in The Press Democrat and The Los Angeles Times. In those statements, McCallum apologized for behavior that may have made people feel uncomfortable, but he denied that behavior was sexual in nature.
In the days leading up to Thursday’s meeting, a group of around seven faculty members collaborated on the 800-word resolution excoriating Sakaki for, among other things, her handling of the allegations against her husband, and her stewardship of the 7,200-student Rohnert Park campus in general.
“President Sakaki’s lack of active leadership at the university has led to a period of declining enrollments, budget crises, and a precipitous drop in the morale of students, staff, and faculty,” the resolution states.
Sakaki, it added, “has delegated nearly all of her responsibilities to subordinates, and she has not engaged with students, staff, or faculty in meaningful ways to plan for the future of the university.”
The resolution next goes to the full Academic Senate, where the 33-member body will determine if and when the referendum will be put to the school’s approximately 500 faculty members.
While they can make for a strong symbolic statement, such no-confidence votes are not binding.
Sakaki’s predecessor, Ruben Armiñana — whose relations with faculty were notoriously combative — was the subject of a similar referendum in 2007. A full 73% of participating faculty members expressed no confidence in him, a result “he just ignored,” recalled Laura Watt, a former Sonoma State environmental history professor and faculty chair.
“People think this time it might make a difference because the situation has gotten way more press than when Armiñana was going through it, and there are public figures who have commented on it,” said Lauren Morimoto, chair of the faculty.
She said she thought CSU officials would only take note if they are already leaning toward removing Sakaki from her position.
“If the CSU has decided they want an excuse to push somebody out, then they’ll do what we say,” she said, in the event that the faculty expresses no confidence in Sakaki.
The email Sakaki sent out to students, staff and faculty on Thursday morning seemed to rebuff the notion she would willingly step away from her position.
Sakaki referenced “personal support” received from campus community members and laid out her priorities moving forward. It did not reference the scheduled Academic Senate meeting or make direct mention of the evolving scandal.
“As your President, I have the ultimate responsibility for doing everything possible to maintain a community that is free of sexual harassment, discrimination, or retaliation. I reiterate: if anyone has an incident or harm to report, I encourage you to do so,” she said in the email.
Sakaki articulated several strategies to tackle areas of concern raised by faculty, administrators and students in the past week, including the rigor of Title IX processes and declining enrollment.
For example, Sakaki said she is creating a president's advisory committee on Title IX, “which will be charged with reviewing and enhancing our policies, practices, and services.” Title IX is the federal law that bars sex discrimination in education.
She also said she is working with the other CSU campuses in Northern California and with UC Berkeley to strategize ways to boost enrollment.
And after furor erupted last week over potential recommendations by a budget committee to tackle Sonoma State’s looming $15 million to $17 million deficit, Sakaki reiterated that no final decisions have been made about potential cuts.
“My plan is that we will change, improve and reduce our spending without the need for layoffs,” she said. “I value each of you and know that it is simply too disruptive to individuals and families to be without dependable employment.
“But I must be honest with you about the challenges ahead and will continue to communicate our progress, current data, and specific actions openly and transparently.”
You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ausmurph88.
Reach Staff Writer Kaylee Tornay at 707-521-5250 or email@example.com. On Twitter @ka_tornay.
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