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Sonoma state president resigns amid sexual harassment scandal

Sonoma State President Judy Sakaki, who has faced outcry for her leadership amid a campus sexual harassment and retaliation scandal involving her and her husband, announced on Monday that she is stepping down .

The announcement marks the latest fallout from harsh criticism of how California State University investigates and resolves complaints of staff sexual harassment and retaliation on its 23 campuses — a controversy that has rattled the ranks of CSU leadership and led its chancellor to resign in February.

Sonoma State President Judy Sakaki.

(California State University)

In recent weeks, Sakaki’s leadership of the Northern California campus has come under intense scrutiny after a Times investigation detailed how California State University paid $600,000 to Settle a lawsuit with a provost who reported allegations of retaliation and sexual harassment involving Sakaki and her husband, Patrick McCallum, a prominent higher education lobbyist.

Provost Lisa Vollendorf alleged she suffered retaliation from Sakaki, her boss, after she reported the sexual harassment accusations about McCallum to senior officials in the chancellor’s office, according to state records. affair.

Sakaki and McCallum previously released statements to The Times saying they had done nothing wrong. Sakaki denied retaliating against Vollendorf, saying the accusations “are completely baseless”.

Sakaki faced a revolt from his campus faculty who voted 173 to 105 in favor of a resolution expressing defiance in his leadership. The result prompted local senators Bill Dodd (D-Napa) and Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg) to announce that Sakaki “should resign for the greater good of the university.”

On Monday, the senators released a statement welcoming his decision to resign, saying it would “allow the Sonoma State community to begin the process of healing and once again focus on the university’s core mission — his students. Deep cultural challenges remain within the Cal State system and change is long overdue. There have been too many instances where women have been harassed, intimidated and retaliated against. We implore the new Chancellor to make this crying issue his top priority and push forward change we can all believe in and restore trust. »

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

“I care deeply about Sonoma State and believe this choice will allow the campus community to move forward in a timely manner,” Sakaki said in a statement.

Sakaki, who was paid $324,000 a year, is a former higher education administrator who was named Sonoma state president in 2016. She is eligible to receive payments for one year as part of ‘a controversial CSU program to help senior executives “transition” after stepping down from office and is eligible to take a full professorship in the university’s School of Education, records show.

Faculty leaders at the university said the Times’ April revelations of allegations of sexual harassment and retaliation sparked simmering frustrations over whether Sakaki could effectively run the campus, which has seen a critical drop in student enrollments in recent years and a high turnover rate among senior managers. .

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

The Times also reported how part of the largest art collection donated to Sonoma State was destroyed at the president’s home during the deadly 2017 wine country firestorm. , tensions have surfaced on campus over the display of more artwork in the private residences of Sakaki and McCallum. , something that was not “within the usual rollout” of the university’s art collection, according to court filings reviewed by The Times.

An employee who repeatedly visited the couple’s home to assess how and where to hang the art reported that McCallum made her feel uncomfortable, describing him as “a dirty old man”, a “pervert” and “scary,” according to the records.

Another Times report detailed how Sakaki chose not to discipline a vice president after an investigation found he engaged in inappropriate touching and made unwanted sexual comments to women while was working at another CSU campus. Sakaki said he spoke to the vice president of student affairs about his expectations – an action that appalled two women who had alleged improper conduct on the part of the senior official and wondered why he had not been disciplined.

Furor over the way the nation’s largest public four-year university system is handling similar charges led Chancellor Joseph I. Castro to resign in February amid criticism over his handling of allegations of sexual harassment, bullying and retaliation involving a senior campus official when he was president of Fresno. State University. As part of a settlement in the case, the former campus vice president, accused of harassment, received $260,000 and a strong letter of recommendation from Castro.

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

The Times investigation detailed Vollendorf’s reports to CSU about the allegations against McCallum. Although not a CSU employee, McCallum had been an official college volunteer who had participated in campus events with his wife. Vollendorf is a longtime higher education administrator and was recently named president of Empire State College at the State University of New York in New York.

Vollendorf said he told the CSU General Counsel in December 2018 that three women — including two campus employees — alleged McCallum talked about his sex life, ran his fingers through a woman’s hair, and then made comments. “inappropriate personal comments” about his appearance at a party. home, according to settlement filings that the provost’s attorney filed with system officials.

The women, who reported the charges to Vollendorf because they worked for her or knew her, described the behavior as “frightening”, “disgusting” and “evil”, according to the records.

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

Cal State officials acknowledged that they did not launch a formal investigation into the sexual harassment allegations and instead spoke to Sakaki about the charges against her husband.
They said the former CSU Title IX officer interviewed three people — two complainants and an apparent witness — about the allegations. One person declined to be interviewed. CSU officials said those interviewed declined to continue. Officials denied that Vollendorf was retaliated against.

Two plaintiffs, who spoke to The Times on condition of anonymity, said fears of losing their jobs and damaging the president’s reputation prompted them not to proceed. A complainant said she later told the Title IX officer that she believed Sakaki had retaliated against her over the claims.

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

Gordon McDougall, who led Sonoma State’s college advancement division before retiring in 2020, said he changed schedules to prevent women on his team from working with McCallum at events. on campus following “complaints of inappropriate touching and comments”.

Los Angeles Times

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