On Aug. 22 Sonoma State University’s annual fall convocation was held at Weill Hall. But for the first time in over two decades a new president would take the podium to address her faculty, staff and students.
Dr. Judy K. Sakaki is now in her eighth week as Sonoma State’s president and she was the first to address those in attendance, but not before an enormous amount of applause on her way to the stage.
Beginning with her agenda over the previous summer months, which involved moving to a new city and meeting new faces, Sakaki described a gathering with faculty and friends over the previous weeks that involved the music constructed by cellist YoYo Ma.
“YoYo Ma does with music what we in education need to move towards, pushing ourselves to think about new ways to better serve and meet the career needs of our new millennial students,” said Sakaki.
Sakaki was vice president of student affairs for the University of California system and has also been head of student affairs for UC Davis and CSU Fresno. With a Ph.D. in education from UC Berkeley, Sakaki earned her M.A. in educational psychology as well as her B.A. in human development from CSU East Bay.
The first half of Sakaki’s speech focused on the goals she wishes to accomplish not only in her first year as president, but the following years as well. With about 800 transfer students incoming this semester, she hopes to smooth the transition of transfer students between Santa Rosa Junior College and Sonoma State. With another 1,825 incoming freshman, Sakaki mentioned that she wants to ensure both staff and students have a voice on campus.
“We are a family of about 1500 faculty and staff,” said Sakaki. “If each one of us committed to mentor, to look out for, to take a special interest in just one perspective student what a difference we could make.”
The need for Sonoma State to become a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) seemed to be a priority for Sakaki as she noted a university needs to have 25 percent of its undergraduates being hispanic to be declared an HSI.
Currently Sonoma State is at 12 percent even though 53 percent of California’s K-12 students are hispanic.
To help Sakaki get familiar with her new job status, she has brought in a whole new team of cabinet members, all but one being on an interim basis, with some even having their first days falling on the day of convocation.
While stating the school’s budget is “unhealthier” than she’d hoped, Sakaki made it clear that the school’s budget priorities will be one of the many tasks that the president’s interim staff will be working on in the coming months.
“I am still in the process of reviewing our budget and am focused on making sure that our resources are lined up to support the educational mission of the university,” said Sakaki. “We are very committed to the success of every single student.”
One of Sakaki’s interim cabinet members, Provost Jeri Echeverria, spoke after President Sakaki. Being a child of immigrant parents, Echeverria touched on the impact higher education had not only on her life but her parents as well.
“The first time my father ever stepped foot on a school campus was the day I graduated college,” said Echeverria. “In many ways I’ve fulfilled my father’s dream of making it in America.”
Previously serving as executive vice chancellor and chief academic officer of the California State University system before retiring, Provost Echeveria hopes to work on two different areas during her short time at Sonoma State. One area being improving academic affairs and the other involving developing the position of provost to make it very attractive to future nominees.
Echeverria also noted challenges involving current faculty on campus such as the decline in the number of faculty over the past 15 years while the compensation for these faculty is low compared to other CSU campuses. This area was also touched on by Professor Elaine Newman ,the California Faculty Association president for Sonoma State, does feel better this year than in years past.
“With Dr. Judy Sakaki’s new interim team and a focus on shared governance under the leadership of Dr. Ben Ford [Chair of the Faculty] and the academic senate we can improve faculty working conditions to increase student learning and outcome,” said Newman. “ I am here with a very different outlook than when I stood here one year ago.”
Perhaps the most crowd pleasing speech of the entire event came from new Associated Students President Emily Hinton who shared her thoughts about student and administration collaboration and the impact it can have. Hinton referred to her own struggles during her first semesters at the university. She is now representing students as a whole. She recalls her thoughts during this time and how all it took was one professor to tell her not to give up.
“Why should I invest my time and money in a university that seemed as though they weren’t investing their time and money in me?” said Hinton. “The only reason I am standing before you today is due to the small effort a dedicated professor put into my time at this university who took a few moments to tell me he saw potential in me.”
Hinton was elected at the end of the 2015-16 school year with the highest voter turnout in six years. The theme of Hinton’s speech was formed around the idea of students and their place on Sonoma State’s campus. Hinton cited the value that should be put on students rather than on the buildings that occupy the campus, as well as the voice that each student should be given during their time at the university. This resulted in abundant applause during her five minutes at the podium which eventually led to a standing ovation at its conclusion.
“I wanted it to be a true representation of what the students felt needed to be voiced,” said Hinton when asked about the contents of her speech a few days later. “I had no prior knowledge of what the other speakers would focus on or that all of our speeches would follow a common theme.”
Almost every speaker alluded to the cooperation of faculty and students to give Sonoma State’s occupants the best chance for success. During the final presentation, Dr. Ben Ford shared his thoughts on this unexpected common theme that appeared for most of the event.
“I’m amazed that all the speakers and I did not talk through our addresses today because it feels like we’re reading off the same script and I can’t tell you how great that feels.”