Don’t underestimate the power of Judy Sakaki, Sonoma State University’s soft-spoken new president. That would be a mistake.
Ask the Ku Klux Klansmen or the notorious basketball coach she stood up to at Fresno State. They saw firsthand that her quiet determination and a sharply honed mission can be formidable weapons. Sakaki doesn’t believe that strength and compassion are mutually exclusive.
Now in her sixth month at SSU, Sakaki, 63, has quickly made it clear that she is there to serve its 9,400 students and the faculty who teach them, even if it involves taking on a few sacred cows.
She has quickly pressed her stamp on the school, canceling one of the flagship construction projects launched by her predecessor, creating a new temporary cabinet of her own hand-picked advisors and announcing her intent to reverse a trend established during the previous administration of replacing full-time faculty with part-timers.
Those who know Sakaki are not the least bit surprised. She comes from a working-class, Japanese-American family who lost everything in the World War II internment camps. She is the first in her family to go to college and has made it her mission throughout her career to make college accessible to everyone.
“You wouldn’t automatically see her as a firebrand. But when you look at the arc of her life, she’s never wavered, never taken the easy route and has always worked for people who need help and deserve help,” said longtime friend Patrick Hayashi, who teamed with Sakaki in 1987 to create the advocacy group Asian Pacific Americans in Higher Education after UC Berkeley was accused of using illegal racial quotas to suppress Asian-American admission.
College life changing
The importance of a mentor is a lesson that Sakaki learned early.
When a high school counselor told a teenage Sakaki that she would be “really good in retail sales,” she trotted off to J.J. Newberry’s in downtown Oakland to get started on her career. Through a vocational education program at Skyline High, the daughter of a truck mechanic would gain work experience at the big five-and-dime at Broadway and Telegraph Avenue.
“I was very dutiful doing the work, lining up things. But one evening I started looking around. And it hit me. I looked into the faces of my co-workers. And they were all women of color in their 40s and 50s and 60s. And they would tell their stories to me. I started thinking, ‘There must be more.’ ”
An educational recruiter at school planted the seed that a young girl who spent her early years in a rough, multi-ethnic neighborhood in East Oakland could consider going to college in the early 1970s, a time when career expectations for women, particularly minority women, were not high.
“That’s when my passions started about what college can do to change a young person’s life,” said Sakaki, who credits that recruiter with redirecting her from a dead end and setting her on an upward path that culminated in her appointment earlier this year as SSU’s president.
“It doesn’t just change your life,” she said of a college education. “It changes your family’s life. It changes your community’s life, and it changes society as a whole.”
Sakaki would make that same discovery — “there must be more” — many times as she steadily scaled the ladder in higher education, beginning as an undergraduate in human development at Hayward State (now Cal State East Bay) and carrying on through two more degrees and ever more demanding administrative appointments within the California State University and the University of California systems. After lower-level management jobs at Hayward State, she moved up into high-level university administration, first as a vice president at Fresno State, the vice chancellor at UC Davis and by 2006, vice president for student affairs for the entire University of California system, working under the steely hand of President Janet Napolitano, with whom she developed a strong relationship professionally and personally