Sonoma state president resigns over sexual harassment scandal

Sonoma State President Judy Sakaki, who has faced an outcry about her leadership amid an on-campus sexual harassment and retaliation scandal involving her and her husband, announced her resignation on Monday.

The announcement marks the latest episode in sharp criticism of how California State University investigates and resolves sexual harassment and complaints of retaliation at its 23 campuses — a controversy that rocked CSU leadership ranks and prompted its chancellor to resign in February.

Sonoma State President Judy Sakaki.

(University of California)

In recent weeks, Sakaki’s leadership of the Northern California campus has come under scrutiny after a Times investigation detailed how California State University paid $600,000 to settle a legal claim with a provost alleging retaliation and allegations sexual harassment to Sakaki and her husband, Patrick McCallum, a prominent college lobbyist.

The sheriff, Lisa Vollendorf, claimed she faced retaliation from Sakaki, her boss, after reporting allegations of sexual harassment against McCallum to senior officials in the chancellor’s office, records in the case show.

Sakaki and McCallum previously made statements to The Times saying they had done nothing wrong. Sakaki denied retaliation against Vollendorf, stating that the allegations were “completely unfounded.”

Sakaki faced a faculty revolt at her campus, who voted 173 to 105 in favor of a resolution expressing distrust in her leadership. The result prompted local state senators Bill Dodd (D-Napa) and Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg) to announce that Sakaki “should step down for the good of the university.”

On Monday, senators released a statement welcoming their decision to step down, saying it would “allow the Sonoma state community to begin the healing process and refocus on the university’s core purpose — its students.” Deep cultural challenges remain within the Cal State system, and changes are long overdue. There have been too many instances of women being harassed, intimidated and faced with retaliation. We implore the new chancellor to make this glaring issue her top priority and drive change that we can all believe in and restore trust in.”

Sonoma State said Sakaki’s resignation will take effect July 31. The university said she was the second woman to be named president of Sonoma State and the first Japanese-American woman to serve as university president in the country.

“I am deeply concerned for Sonoma State and believe this election will allow the campus community to move forward in a timely manner,” Sakaki said in a statement.

Sakaki, who received $324,000 a year, is a veteran college administrator who was named President of Sonoma State in 2016. She is entitled to payouts for one year as part of a controversial CSU program Records show it can help top executives “transition” after they have resigned from their posts and is eligible to hold a permanent faculty position in the university’s School of Education.

University faculty chiefs said the Times’ April revelations of allegations of sexual harassment and retaliation sparked Sakaki’s simmering frustrations over whether Sakaki could effectively run the campus, which has seen a critical decline in student enrollment and high turnover among senior staff in recent years administrators have experienced .

Sakaki announced that she was separating from her husband after he sent emails to friends and family that Sakaki called “inaccurate and unauthorized.” The emails, some of which were sent to The Times, criticized Vollendorf and media coverage of the scandal.

The Times also reported how part of the largest art collection donated to the state of Sonoma was destroyed at the President’s home during the deadly 2017 wine country firestorm. After the Tubbs fire, tensions surfaced on campus over more artwork being displayed in the private homes of Sakaki and McCallum, something that was not “within the usual scope” of the university’s art collection, according to legal settlement records reviewed by The Times .

An employee, who visited the couple’s home several times to assess how and where the artworks should be hung, reported that McCallum made her feel uncomfortable and, according to the records, described him as a “filthy old man,” “pervert,” and ” creepy” described.

Another Times report detailed how Sakaki chose not to discipline a vice president after an investigation found he engaged in inappropriate touching and made unwelcome sexual comments toward women while working on another CSU campus . Sakaki said she spoke to the vice president for student affairs about her expectations — an act that dismayed two women who had alleged inappropriate behavior by the top official and asked why he wasn’t being disciplined.

Outrage over how the country’s largest four-year public university system is handling similar allegations prompted Chancellor Joseph I. Castro to resign in February amid criticism for his handling of sexual harassment, bullying and retaliatory allegations leveled at a senior campus official was involved when he was President of Fresno State University. As part of a settlement in this case, the former campus VP accused of harassment received $260,000 and a strong letter of recommendation from Castro.

The settlement, approved by former Chancellor Timothy P. White, sparked public outrage and prompted trustees overseeing the system to order a review of how Title IX complaints are handled at each of the 23 campuses.

The Times research detailed Vollendorf’s reports to the CSU about the allegations against McCallum. Although not a CSU employee, McCallum had been an official university volunteer, attending campus events with his wife. Vollendorf is a longtime college administrator and was recently appointed President of Empire State College at the State University of New York in New York.

Vollendorf said she told the CSU General Counsel in December 2018 that three women — two of whom were campus employees — allegedly spoke to McCallum about his sex life, ran fingers through one woman’s hair, and then made “inappropriate personal comments” about her appearance during one Partyed at his home, according to settlement documents filed with system officials by the Provost’s attorney.

The women who reported the allegations to Vollendorf because they worked for her or knew her described the behavior as “creepy,” “disgusting,” and “kinky,” the notes said.

The Times investigation found that Vollendorf provided CSU officials with the names of the three women and three other people who said they witnessed such behavior.

Cal State officials acknowledged that they did not open a formal investigation into the sexual harassment allegations and instead spoke with Sakaki about the allegations against her husband.
They said the CSU’s former Title IX officer questioned three people — two complainants and an apparent witness — about the allegations. One person declined an interview. CSU officials said respondents declined to go ahead. Officials denied that Vollendorf faced retaliation.

Two complainants, who spoke to the Times on condition of anonymity, said fears of job loss and damage to the president’s reputation prompted them not to proceed. One complainant said she later told the Title IX officer that she believed Sakaki had retaliated against her for the allegations.

A former interim vice president at the university told The Times that he reported similar allegations against McCallum to General Counsel Andrew Jones on behalf of his staff in 2019, but that no one followed up.

Gordon McDougall, who led Sonoma State’s University Advancement Division before retiring in 2020, said he changed schedules to prevent women on his team from working with McCallum during campus events after “complaints of inappropriate touching.” and comments had occurred.

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