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.