23 to watch in 2023: Mike Lee, interim president of Sonoma State University

Mike Lee has worn many hats in his 28 years at Sacramento State University, now he’s wearing another one as a turnaround specialist at Sonoma State University.|

For more people to watch in 2023, go here.

Name: Ming-Tung “Mike” Lee

Title or position: Interim president of Sonoma State University

On the job since: Aug. 1, 2022

Age: 61

Hometown: Rohnert Park (Lee and his wife Fei live in campus housing.)

Why Lee is someone to watch:

Mike Lee, Ph. D, wore many hats in his 28 years at Sacramento State University: vice president, chief financial officer, interim provost, professor. Now he’s wearing another one as a turnaround specialist at Sonoma State University.

When Judy Sakaki resigned July 31 as the school’s president, she left a campus troubled with sagging enrollment and a budget shortfall of approximately $14 million for the 2022-2023 school year -- partly the result of the wildfires, power outages and pandemic that beset her 6½ years in office.

Into the breach stepped Lee, who was plucked from retirement and named interim president of the Rohnert Park campus, where enrollment had dipped from 9,200 in 2017 to just under 7,200 in 2021.

Early returns on his tenure are encouraging. Enrollment has slightly rebounded – as has morale, judging by the boisterous crowd of around 250 students and faculty who interrupted his remarks with cheers and applause during a recent ribbon-cutting ceremony for the renovated Stevenson Hall.

While there is “a lot of hope, a lot of crossed fingers” among faculty, according to one professor, many are reserving judgment until they see the results of the Academic Master Plan now being drawn up by the university to address its stubborn structural deficit.

That shortfall will force Lee and the university to make a series of difficult decisions. According to a November memo by the school’s Provost, Karen Moranski, the Academic Affairs division must reduce its budget by $9.7 million over the next two years.

What others are saying about him:

One thing that’s become clear in Lee’s brief time on campus, says student body president Yasmin Esquivel, is that “he very much wants to get to know Sonoma State. We see him walking around, going table to table, asking people about themselves, trying to get to know each individual.

“We see how much effort he’s put in, and everyone really appreciates him. He’s giving 110%, and the students recognize that.”

Even though he’s the interim president, said Esquivel, “We’re loving him. I’ve already had people asking me, what’s the process” for removing the interim tag?

“And I’m like, ‘I don’t know, but I’ll get back to you.’”

What Lee says about 2023:

“The university has gone through some tough times. But difficult times develop stronger and better characters, and a stronger, better university. This is a time of renewal (for Sonoma State). We’re seeing good signs of enrollment coming back. We’re seeing a lot of energy on campus. We are building a better and stronger university“ he said, ”the intellectual, cultural, and economic hub of the community. Watch out in 2023 for a forward-looking and energetic Sonoma State University!"

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

For more people to watch in 2023, go here.

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