Sonoma State University's new president outlines student-centered tenure

She walks across the campus with a broad smile, waving, saying 'hello', shaking hands, and engaging with students, staff and faculty at every turn.

Judy Sakaki, Ph.D., comes from a background in student affairs, and as Sonoma State University's seventh president, that's where she plans on focusing her leadership.

Ten weeks into the job, her enthusiasm and optimism appears shared by those she meets. She poses for selfies with students, on move-in day she donned jeans and helped students move into their dorms, in the recreation building she talks with student staff about how she will have to scale the enormous rock climbing wall one day.

Sakaki has served as Vice President, Student Affairs for the University of California system, has taught university classes, has testified before Senate and Assembly Committees regarding financial aid, academic preparation programs, and gender equity in athletics and mental health.

Before she was hired, Sakaki spent a weekend walking around campus and talking to people she bumped into.

'What I heard was how much they love this place, and feel quite passionate about it. It was heartwarming and made me think about wanting to be a part of this community, and the larger community.'

Sakaki's predecessor, Ruben Armiñana, held the position for 24 years. During his tenure, the campus was bolstered by building the Green Music Center, much-needed student housing, and the Charles Schulz Library and Information Center.

While Sakaki praises the development and attractiveness of the campus, she said she'll be looking internally, with an emphasis on the students and the education they are getting.

'It was time for a change,' she said.

Sakaki has initiated 'walks and talks' around the campus with anyone who wishes to join her. Students take her to places she hasn't been yet, and she pops her head into classrooms.

'I get to listen and hear what people's concerns are. I'm still in that listening phase,' she said. 'If you have some advice for me, I want to hear it.'

Although the focus of the university is turning inward, fostering more partnerships with local businesses is also on the agenda.

'I think sometimes the education community can be too separate from the business community. What we need to do is make sure that as we talk to employers we say 'what are you needing now?' As we think about the majors we have here, are they connected to, and are we preparing our students to be as successful as they can possibly be in this global, high tech, world,' she said.

The new Wine Spectator Learning Center, which is expected to open in summer 2017, has a wide breath of wineries on the board of directors Sakaki noted, and industry professionals will be teaching and consulting.

'That's what's exciting, we're partners in everything that we do and you'll begin to see that even more. I would welcome more involvement from the business community, looking at how we can be a resource, how our faculty and staff could be resources as well. We drive so much economic development in this area, and we have so many alumni that stay and live and work and are leaders in this area. It's just a natural to want to do more.'

The new president has also brought in a number of seasoned higher education experts to round out her team, with no other agenda than to help her to make Sonoma State even better than it is, she said.

'These are people who retired at the top of their game. They have all this experience at other universities. Sometimes looking at change is hard, and you hesitate. They can look very critically at an area and say 'maybe we should think about this', and we're doing that as a team.'

It's an open process, Sakaki said, meeting with academic senate, faculty, staff and students and saying 'here's what we're thinking.'

'We're asking ourselves is this the best way to deliver education and services to students?'

One issue comes from pressure from the state's governor and legislators to graduate students in four years. According to Cal State data, only about 19 percent of students do so.

'Is there enough access to the university, and once students are here are we providing enough that they can graduate in a more timely fashion?' Sakaki said. 'Creating an institution that is student focused requires alignment, doing everything possible to support the faculty, and staff to support students as they move towards graduation.'

Sakaki said she's thinking of a way to encourage people to think about new partnerships—between businesses and departments, between academic departments, between faculty—that advance and support students.

'Let's think about new collaborations, new ways we can work together so we're all united around students' success. It's not a competition, it's about a collaboration. The community will be stronger for it,' she said.

Cynthia Sweeney covers health care, hospitality, residential real estate, education, employment and business insurance. Reach her at or call 707-521-4259.

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