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Will the California State University Board of Trustees, facing its own ‘moment of crisis,’ act on Sakaki?

LONG BEACH — The 19 trustees who oversee the California State University system’s 23 campuses spent Tuesday and Wednesday discussing the business of running the nation’s largest four-year public university system.

And while the trustees focused on educational policies, finances and building projects, the meeting showcased a more than $7 billion a year public university system with leadership in transition as it confronts deep institutional challenges.

Controversies surrounding three university presidents in the CSU system — embattled Sonoma State President Judy Sakaki was not one of them — drew protesters and scathing public comment. CSU police officers provided tight security around the CSU Chancellor’s gleaming waterfront office building near the mouth of the Los Angeles River.

Faculty representatives from the 23 campuses also presented a no-confidence vote to the trustees over their handling of the resignation of former system Chancellor Joseph Castro after a sexual harassment scandal.

But Sakaki’s case did not appear on the board’s agenda, or at least any public portion of it, even though she has been under fire for more than six weeks over her handling of sexual harassment allegations against her husband.

Though the no-confidence resolution targeted the board’s handling of Castro, the allegations against Sakaki and her husband were “definitely on our minds,” said Robert Collins, a San Francisco State University professor and outgoing chairperson of the CSU Academic Senate he said.

The Sonoma State issues were “kind of a canary in a coal mine that there is a broad problem,” Collins told The Press Democrat after his remarks to the board.

“Distrust and low morale remain due to recent scandals,” Collins said in his remarks to the trustees.

“Women colleagues still find accountability lacking in the Title IX process,” he said, referring to CSU’s procedures for investigating incidents of gender-based discrimination and sexual assault.

Castro resigned in mid-February amid outrage over a USA Today investigation revealing he had mishandled findings that a then-vice president of student affairs sexually harassed a subordinate. He left, however, with a $400,000 severance payment and position as adviser to the board.

Subsequent scandals, including the events at Sonoma State, have further eroded trust in the Chancellor’s office and the board.

On April 13, The Press Democrat reported CSU had paid $600,000 in January to settle a former provost’s harassment claim. Lisa Vollendorf claimed Sakaki retaliated against her after she reported harassment allegations by several female Sonoma State employees against Patrick McCallum, Sakaki’s husband.

Sakaki has denied retaliating against Vollendorf and McCallum has denied engaging in sexual harassment. Sakaki also denies that she retaliated against Kevin Wenrick, former managing director of SSU’s Green Music Center.

Wenrick told The Press Democrat he alerted Sakaki to concerns from his female colleagues about McCallum’s behavior, and said he believes it may have led to his dismissal shortly afterward.

“Dr. Sakaki would never retaliate against anyone for bringing forward workplace issues,” her spokesperson Larry Kamer said in a previous statement in response to Wenrick’s allegation.

“She has made clear that she abhors discrimination based on race, gender, ethnicity, or sexual preference,” he said. “Her entire professional life has been dedicated to creating opportunities for members of underrepresented communities.”

Sakaki has been keeping a low profile, avoiding major campus events like the May 21 graduation and turning down press interview requests.

The Sakaki allegations and others throughout the system have led to a crumbling of trust in the system, one of its own trustees told The Press Democrat.

“We are in a moment of crisis,” said Krystal Raynes, who was appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom two years ago when she was a 21-year-old senior at CSU Bakersfield.

Raynes cited Title IX procedures and “a loss of confidence“ in trustees from the far-flung California campuses as among the causes of the crisis, alongside low salaries for university faculty and staff amid the rising costs of living in California.

Trustees, and the new interim chancellor, say they’re confronting the criticisms. “Reform in multiple areas is critical to the system’s success, and we are taking action,“ Lillian Kimbell, who was board chair until recently, said in a statement to The Press Democrat. As of Wednesday, the board is now chaired by Wenda Fong.

CSU’s new interim chancellor Jolene Koester, appointed by the board, said restoring trust in the office was her primary goal.

“Recent events and revelations have made it clear, sometimes painfully clear, that we have not always carried out our work in a manner that was consistently true to our core values,” Koester said.

A spokesperson for the CSU system declined to make Koester or Kimbell available for interviews, saying both women were busy with the business of the board meeting.

One trustee, San Jose State University professor Romey Sabalius, told a reporter that only the chair could address Sakaki matter publicly. Kindell’s statement did not address SSU or its president.

The board held a two-hour secret session Tuesday to discuss “executive personnel” matters, but afterward members took their seats at a circular dais without announcing any action.

California’s open meeting law requires the board to report any action taken during so-called executive sessions, but it does not require disclosure of topics that are merely discussed without action.

CSU officials remained tight-lipped with reporters during the entire two-day discussion and would not confirm whether Sakaki’s leadership was discussed.

The board discussed two proposed new policies regarding accountability for administrators, supervisors and professors accused of sexual harassment or assault, and will likely vote on them at a later meeting.

One of the proposals under consideration is the system’s “retreat rights” policy, which allows tenured faculty serving in executive roles to return to teaching upon their dismissal or resignation from the leadership role. Retreat rights have made it difficult for campuses to completely sever administrators, even after proven misconduct.

A second policy seeks to ensure that CSU employees who engaged in misconduct during their tenure at one campus cannot find safe harbor at another academic institution.

Sakaki faces criticism for hiring former Vice President of Student Affairs William Gregory Sawyer despite the fact that administrators of his previous campus for 16 years, CSU Channel Islands, did not provide a reference for him.

A month before Sawyer arrived in Rohnert Park, CSU Channel Islands notified Sonoma State it was investigating him for possible violations of Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in educational settings. He has denied wrongdoing according to public records.

Presidents under fire

While trustees conducted their closed-door session Tuesday morning, more than 50 protesters with the California Faculty Association rallied in front of the building. The 29,000-member strong labor union represents faculty and staff in the CSU system.

A letter from the union to the trustees, however, included SSU’s settlement with Vollendorf in a list of scandals that had culminated, according to the union, in CSU payments of nearly $7 million in payments to settle sexual harassment and abuse cases over the last three years.

Protesters appeared to be more focused, however, on calling for the firing of Cal State LA President William Covino. Those calls for his removal began after campus police forcibly removed tenured professor and Black Lives Matter activist Melina Abdullah from a campus theater during a Los Angeles mayoral debate.

Abdullah spoke at the trustees meeting, where she asked for “swift action” to remove Covino. A wave of speakers also called for board intervention with San Francisco State University Lynn Mahoney for refusing to hire professors for an Arab American studies program and with CSU San Bernardino President Tomás D. Morales over allegations that institution retaliated against employee whistleblowers. No commenters addressed Sakaki.

Like at Sonoma State, Cal Sate L.A. faculty voted to pass a resolution of “no confidence” in Covino. Forty senators, or 91% of the campus academic senate, voted in favor of the resolution.

At SSU, 62% of voting faculty supported a no-confidence resolution against Sakaki, but only 44% of the eligible voting faculty weighed in. The SSU vote was not limited to a faculty senate but was open to much of the teaching faculty.

Sakaki did not attend the CSU meeting in person. She participated by video link, according to an SSU spokesperson.

Earlier this month, after a no-confidence vote by university faculty members and a call from state Sens. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, and Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg to step down, Sakaki reaffirmed her commitment in a written statement to “redoubling our efforts on Title IX; addressing the budget; strategic enrollment; and new initiatives.”

Only the board can remove Sakaki. A CSU policy on the selection for presidents indicates that “the ultimate decision and responsibility for the transition of executive leadership rests with the Board.”

Staff writer Marisa Endicott contributed to this report.

You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or andrew.graham@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @AndrewGraham88.

Andrew Graham

Business enterprise and investigations, The Press Democrat 

I dig into businesses, utility companies and nonprofits to learn how their actions, or inactions, impact the lives of North Bay residents. I’m looking to dive deep into public utilities, labor struggles and real estate deals. I try to approach my work with the journalism axioms of giving voice to the voiceless, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable in mind.

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