Sonoma State President Sakaki becomes third CSU leader to resign amid scandal

Allegations of harassment and retaliation have plagued the California State University system over the past few years.
By: | June 7, 2022
Sonoma State president Judy Sakaki at 2018 commencement ceremonies. (Photo courtesy of Sonoma State University)

Sonoma State University President Judy Sakaki is resigning from her position at the end of July, becoming the third top leader in the California State University system to exit amid controversy in the past eight months.

Pressure on Sakaki, 69, to relinquish the presidency heightened over the past month as two state senators asked her to step down and a no-confidence vote was levied by the faculty senate. The public emergence of widespread sexual harassment allegations against her husband, Patrick McCallum, and a reported settlement in April became one of several linchpins that led to her ouster. Not even a separation from him could quell calls for her to step down.

Sakaki joins former San Jose State President Mary Papazian and former Chancellor Joseph Castro—who resigned in October 2021 and February 2022, respectively, over campus scandals—as the latest leaders from the Golden State to be forced out. She will leave after six years, a legacy that includes being only the second woman to hold the position at Sonoma State and the first Japanese American to be installed as president at any university in the U.S., while also navigating Sonoma through the COVID-19 pandemic.

“After thoughtful reflection and discussions with my family, I made the decision to step away as president of this wonderful campus,” Sakaki said, in a statement through the university. “I care deeply about Sonoma State and believe this choice will allow the campus community to move forward in a timely manner. I am incredibly grateful to the entire SSU and the North Bay communities for the opportunity to serve during such a challenging and transformative time at Sonoma State. I will forever treasure my time serving as SSU President.”

Whether she will exit the university completely is still unknown. According to the Los Angeles Times, Sakaki will be eligible to get future payments—her salary was just shy of $325,000, with a sizeable housing stipend—as well as be able to become a faculty member in the School of Education. Sakaki indicated that she would continue “opening doors and transforming the lives of individuals, families and communities through education,” but did not offer specifics.

Sonoma State has not yet broached that possibility or the next steps for finding her replacement. Chair of the Board of Trustees Wenda Fong thanked Sakaki for her time in office, lauding the “contributions she has made to student success.” Those included improvements in both first-year graduation rates and two-year transfer rates, which were the best in the state. The university also gained Hispanic Serving Institution status under her leadership.

However, there has been deep criticism of her handling of the university’s budget, which is running at a more than $15 million deficit, according to reports from the Riverside Press Democrat. Enrollments at the institutions also were down more than 8 percent in the fall of 2021, far surpassing the average losses of between 3 and 5 percent throughout the system.

More from UB: The steps Cal State is taking to try to rebuild after two scandals

Those factors plus major developments around allegations of harassment of employees by another university leader and by McCallum, a state lobbyist who had access to campus through Sakaki and his volunteer work, helped prompt the push for Sakaki to resign. Former provost Lisa Vollendorf, now the president of SUNY-Empire State College, claimed she was both a victim of advances by McCallum in 2018 and then retaliation by Sakaki for coming forward. Sakaki and McCallum both denied that the harassment occurred, but the university reportedly paid out $600,000 to her in a settlement.

New beginnings at Sonoma and CSU system?

Sakaki promised in April that the university would forge “new beginnings and transformations,” even addressing harassment head-on in a statement to the community. “As your president, I have the ultimate responsibility of doing everything possible to maintain a community that is free of sexual harassment, discrimination or retaliation. I reiterate: If anyone has an incident or harm to report, I encourage you to do so.”

But according to the Press Democrat, she has been far less public in recent weeks, missing both commencement ceremonies and a key event for new students. Her decision to end her tenure was welcomed by the two senators, Bill Dodd and Mike McGuire, who were instrumental in raising awareness about problems at Sonoma State and about others that exist at other universities.

“There remain deep cultural challenges within the Cal State system and change is long overdue,” they said in a joint statement. “There have been too many circumstances where women have been harassed, intimidated and retaliated against. We implore the incoming chancellor to make this glaring issue their top priority and advance change that we can all believe in and reestablish trust.”

Newly installed Chancellor Jolene Koester, the former president of Cal State Northridge, addressed those “circumstances” in a letter to university leaders less than two weeks ago, vowing to ensure safety on campuses. She has inherited a mess that includes the Sonoma and San Jose scandals, along with her predecessor’s failure to properly deal with allegations of harassment levied against Student Affairs Vice President Frank Lamas while Castro was leading Fresno State.

“As recent events and revelations have made clear—sometimes painfully clear—change is necessary,” she wrote. “We must do better. I assure you that CSU leadership will work diligently to restore trust across our universities and among the communities we serve. We will take a hard and clear-eyed look at our processes, policies and organizational structures to build a culture of inclusiveness, open communication and service. We will face our most critical operational and strategic challenges head-on, from funding and enrollment to closing equity gaps to restoring faith in the protections of Title IX.”

Of Sakaki and her work at the university, Koester said she “has demonstrated a steadfast passion for the transformative power of a college degree. We are grateful for her many years of service in higher learning including at Sonoma State and Fresno State.”