A sexual harassment scandal rocked Sonoma State. Now its president has resigned

·6 min read

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

The announcement marks the latest fallout from searing criticism over how California State University investigates and resolves sexual harassment and workforce retaliation complaints at its 23 campuses — a controversy that has shaken CSU's leadership ranks and led its chancellor to step down in February.

In recent weeks, Sakaki's leadership of the Northern California campus came under scrutiny after a Times investigation detailed how CSU paid $600,000 to settle a legal claim with a provost who reported retaliation and sexual harassment allegations involving Sakaki and her husband, Patrick McCallum, a prominent higher education lobbyist.

The provost, Lisa Vollendorf, alleged she faced retaliation from Sakaki, her boss, after she reported the sexual harassment accusations about McCallum to top officials at the chancellor’s office, records in the case show.

Sakaki and McCallum previously issued statements to The Times saying they had done nothing wrong. Sakaki denied retaliating against Vollendorf, declaring that the accusations “are utterly without basis.”

Sakaki faced a revolt from faculty at her campus, who voted 173 to 105 in favor of a resolution expressing no confidence in her leadership. The result prompted local state Sens. Bill Dodd (D-Napa) and Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg) to announce that Sakaki "should step down for the greater good of the university."

On Monday, the senators released a statement welcoming her decision to resign, saying it would "allow the Sonoma State community to start the healing process and return its focus to the university’s core mission — its students. There remain deep cultural challenges within the Cal State system and change is long overdue. 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.”

Sonoma State said Sakaki's resignation would take effect on July 31. The university said she was the second woman appointed as president of Sonoma State and the first Japanese American woman to serve as a university president in the nation.

"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 veteran higher education administrator who was appointed as Sonoma State president in 2016. She is entitled to receive payouts for a year as part of a controversial CSU program to help top executives "transition" after they step down from their posts and is eligible to hold a tenured faculty position in the university's School of Education, records show.

Faculty leaders at the university said The Times' disclosures in April about the sexual harassment and retaliation allegations unleashed simmering frustrations about whether Sakaki could effectively lead the campus, which has experienced a critical drop in student enrollment in recent years and high turnover among senior administrators.

Sakaki announced that she was separating from her husband after he sent emails to friends and family that Sakaki said were “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 Sonoma State was destroyed at the president's home during the deadly wine country firestorm of 2017. After the Tubbs fire, tensions surfaced on the campus about displaying more artwork in Sakaki and McCallum’s private residences, something that was not “within the customary deployment” of the university’s art collection, according to legal settlement records reviewed by The Times.

An employee who visited the couple’s home numerous times 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 “creepy,” according to the records.

Another Times report detailed how Sakaki opted not to discipline a vice president after an investigation concluded that he engaged in inappropriate touching and made unwanted sexual comments to women while working at another CSU campus. Sakaki said she spoke to the vice president for student affairs about her expectations — an action that dismayed two women who had alleged inappropriate conduct by the top official and questioned why he was not disciplined.

The furor over how the nation’s largest four-year public university system handles similar accusations led Chancellor Joseph I. Castro to resign in February amid criticism over his handling of sexual harassment, bullying and retaliation allegations involving a senior campus official when he was president of Fresno State University. As part of a settlement in that case, the campus’ former vice president, who was 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 trustees who oversee the system to order a review of how Title IX complaints are handled at each of the 23 campuses.

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

Vollendorf said she told the CSU general counsel in December 2018 that three women — two of them campus employees — alleged McCallum talked about his sex life, ran his fingers through one woman’s hair and then made “inappropriate personal comments” about her appearance during a party at his house, according to settlement records the provost’s attorney filed with system officials.

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

The Times’ investigation noted that Vollendorf provided CSU officials with the names of the three women and three more people who said they witnessed such conduct.

Cal State officials acknowledged that they did not launch a formal investigation into the sexual harassment claims and instead spoke to Sakaki about the accusations against her husband.

They said CSU’s former Title IX officer interviewed three people — two complainants and an apparent witness — about the allegations. One person declined to be interviewed. CSU officials said that those interviewed declined to proceed. Officials denied Vollendorf was subjected to retaliation.

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

A former interim 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 that no one followed up with him.

Gordon McDougall, who directed 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 following complaints of inappropriate touching and comments.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.