BREAKING THE CEILING: Sonoma State prez wants to increase university’s reach

Judy K. Sakaki. courtesy of Sonoma State University

Closing out an eventful first year as the seventh president of Sonoma State University, Dr. Judy K. Sakaki, the first female Japanese American president of a four-year university in the United States, continues a career dedicated to helping students attain higher education through California’s public university system.

The daughter of a mechanic and a Sunday school teacher, the Sansei calls herself a product of Oakland, Calif.’s public schools and California’s State University system. She graduated from California State University, Hayward (now CSU East Bay) with a bachelor’s degree in human development and a master’s degree in educational psychology. She also holds a Ph.D. in education from UC Berkeley. As a first generation college graduate, she went into higher education because of the opportunities it provided her when she was younger.

“I really wanted to work with young people around educational issues, because I know that my life changed by going to college.

I just learned things I didn’t know before and it opened my eyes to possibilities, and I wanted to make a difference,” she told the Nichi Bei Weekly in a phone interview. “I grew up in Oakland and many of my friends did not go on to college. I knew how much that changed my life.”

According to Patrick Hayashi, a fellow founding board member of Asian Pacific Americans in Higher Education, Sakaki has been concerned about access to higher education since early on in her career. The two met when they both helped found APAHE in 1987.

“I think from a really young age, Judy has been really concerned about issues of fairness — not just for Asian Pacific Islanders, but for everyone,” Hayashi told the Nichi Bei Weekly over the phone. “I think part of that had to do with her own experience growing up in a working class family, seeing how certain groups have a harder time than other groups and I think one thread that runs throughout her career is making sure that higher education is open for everyone.”

While her resume reflects her focus on students, others note that Sakaki has various other strengths that aid her in leading a university as well. Willie Tamayo, a community representative on the advisory search committee for the university’s president, said during Sakaki’s investiture, “Dr. Sakaki is the right person at the right time for Sonoma State University. Dr. Sakaki is a gifted educator, administrator, fundraiser and has a clear vision, knowledge, energy and the charm to expand and create partnerships within our great local Sonoma County community.”

While the job of a university president has a wider set of responsibilities, Sakaki said her approach is grounded in her student affairs background. While only at the helm since July 2016, Sakaki has already affected major changes on campus. The campus earned its designation as a “Hispanic-serving institution,” which Sakaki said opens doors for additional funding for the school to serve minorities. Furthermore, she canceled plans for a $10 million dollar concert pavilion proposed by her predecessor.

Sakaki takes the helm of Sonoma State following Ruben Armiñana, who held the position for the past 24 years. According to The Press Democrat, Armiñana pursued aggressive capital projects that turned a commuter school to a “destination campus” featuring a $145 million performing arts hall known as the Green Music Center.

“I inherited a beautiful campus. It’s sort of a hidden gem. I just think that more people, more students, more families could benefit from the education,” Sakaki said. Quoting the Green Music Center’s motto, “aim high, reach wide and educate all,” Sakaki said it was time for the school to start reaching wider. “I think the university has done a fabulous job of aiming high. … We have many, many, recognized academic programs, and now I want to focus on reaching wide and making sure people know about Sonoma State and come and visit.”

While Sakaki emphasized higher education helped her succeed, she said her family history also influenced her as a leader. “Whatever we do, we bring who we are to the table, to our experience, to our leadership style,” she said. To commemorate this, Sakaki said the university currently hosts the “I Am Because … Dr. Judy Sakaki’s Journey to the SSU Presidency” exhibit in the university library’s gallery. The exhibit features elements of Sakaki’s Japanese American heritage, including her family’s experience with wartime incarceration, as well as quotes and portraits of her professional mentors.

For Sakaki, her proudest professional moment was obtaining an exception from the University of California Regents to issue honorary degrees in 2009 for Japanese Americans who could not get their degrees from the University of California as a result of wartime incarceration. Sakaki said she was asked to chair a statewide task force with Daniel Simmons, a UC Davis law professor, to examine how the university system could do it despite a moratorium on honorary degrees since 1986.

“Even through my own parents were not UC students, it was something that I could do in my role there as vice president of student affairs,” she said.

As the first Japanese American woman to lead a four-year university, Sakaki said, “it is an honor, it is humbling, and makes me feel a huge sense of responsibility as well.”

“I just want to be a strong and effective, student centered president of this university,” she said. “I want to take on issues that affect not only our campus, but help the students across the state and our country as well.”

“I Am Because…” is on display at the Sonoma State University Library, 1801 East Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park, Calif. through Oct. 12.

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