State auditor to investigate Sonoma State University sex harassment response

State auditor will investigate sex harassment complaint processes at the California State University system, including Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park.|

What you need to know about the Sonoma State 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.

Sakaki announced June 7 she would resign at the end of July. On June 27, Ming-Tung “Mike” Lee, a longtime Sacramento State administrator, was named the incoming interim SSU president.

State legislators this week ordered a probe of the California State University system’s handling of sexual harassment reports, including those at Sonoma State University.

The audit, approved Monday by the members of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, follows a slew of reports since February 2022 that detailed varying responses across the 23-campus system to sexual harassment and retaliation complaints and Los Angeles Times reporting that showed CSU paid millions of dollars in payouts to executives who resigned related to such complaints.

Sonoma State in Rohnert Park was named as one of three CSU campuses on which the state auditor will focus its investigation.

The campus, and President Judy Sakaki, came under scrutiny in April after The Press Democrat first reported the CSU paid a former provost $600,000 in a settlement to resolve her complaint of retaliation by Sakaki after reporting sexual harassment complaints against Patrick McCallum, Sakaki’s husband.

Sakaki has since announced her separation from McCallum and her upcoming resignation, effective July 31. Ming-Tung “Mike” Lee, a longtime Sacramento State administrator, was this week named interim incoming president of Sonoma State, starting Aug. 1.

The state’s independent audit will also focus on San Jose State and Fresno State universities, where scandals involving sexual assault and harassment also were reported this year.

But the issues highlighted within the CSU extend well beyond those three campuses, and the investigation will also focus on the Chancellor’s Office, which has also been the subject of scrutiny and turnover in recent months.

Assembly member Jim Wood, D-Santa Rosa, who sits on the Joint Legislative Audit committee, said the audit will provide critical insight into where the university system has been falling short.

“This audit request is the result of learning how poorly CSUs have handled recent complaints related to sexual violence and harassment,” Wood said. “It’s outrageous to hear that one out of four women have been victims of nonconsensual sexual contact while attending college. Universities must be safe places that respect and protect all students and staff, and if that’s not happening, we have to understand why and take appropriate action. This audit will help us understand what we need to do.”

Former CSU Chancellor Joseph Castro resigned in mid-February amid outcry after a USA Today investigation revealed details of his handling of sexual harassment complaints against a top administrator while Castro was president of Fresno State. According to reports, Castro allowed the administrator to retire instead of adequately investigating the complaints.

Castro left the CSU with a more than $400,000 severance payment and a position as adviser to the board.

After her departure from Sonoma State, Sakaki will move on to a yearlong administrative position with the Chancellor’s Office for $254,438 before being offered the option to transition to a faculty post in the CSU system.

The new state audit will also focus on assessing the scope and circumstances around golden handshakes, letters of recommendation and the CSU’s executive transition programs, which have led to Castro, Sakaki and others continuing their employment with the CSU even after resigning due to troubled leadership.

Assemblymember Rudy Salas, D-Bakersfield, who introduced the audit request in April, said Monday the audit would be an important starting point to rebuilding confidence in the CSU’s ability to handle its obligations to protect students and employees from harassment.

“It is unacceptable for this nation’s largest four-year public university system to have such widespread sexual harassment allegations and payouts,” Salas said. “Students, faculties, and other members of the CSU community have expressed a loss of confidence in the university’s handling of sexual harassment complaints and its hiring and separate practices. I believe an independent audit of the CSU’s investigative process and its executive compensation practices is a necessary first step in building back the public’s trust in the CSU.”

The CSU has commissioned its own investigation into its practices to comply with Title IX, the federal law that prohibits discrimination and harassment on the basis of sex in educational settings that receive federal funds.

Interim CSU Chancellor Jolene Koester acknowledged the system’s shortcomings in a message sent out June 23, the 50th anniversary of Title IX. She pointed to the investigation the CSU Board of Trustees commissioned with an independent law firm as a sign of progress.

“The CSU is at an inflection point, with a unique opportunity to fundamentally change the way we treat people: our diverse and talented students, our world-class faculty and staff, our partners and friends,” Koester said.

“To approach the systemwide Title IX assessment as some sort of bureaucratic check-the-box exercise would be to squander that opportunity. That will not happen.”

Still, legislators said they wanted to have a more independent body ― namely, the state auditor ― investigate those questions. Members of the CSU system, including the California Faculty Association, had been calling for a state audit since April.

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

What you need to know about the Sonoma State 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.

Sakaki announced June 7 she would resign at the end of July. On June 27, Ming-Tung “Mike” Lee, a longtime Sacramento State administrator, was named the incoming interim SSU president.

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