In California’s Wine Country, a New President Acts to Move a University Forward

October 02, 2016

Hiring a ‘Dream Team’

Sonoma State U.
Judy K. Sakaki
As she prepared to become president of Sonoma State University in July, Judy K. Sakaki was surprised to learn that she would become the first Japanese-American woman to lead a four-year university in the United States.

A University of Connecticut at Stamford professor, Michael Ego, who was doing research on Japanese-American university chiefs, called to let her know about the precedent. "It’s not that it weighs you down," she says. "It’s just that you take that into context and know the importance of being a role model."

Ms. Sakaki, a first-generation college student who earned a Ph.D. in education from the University of California at Berkeley, was vice president for student affairs in the University of California system. Sonoma State, in Northern California’s wine country, is one of 23 campuses in the California State University system.

She quickly hired what she calls a "dream team" to fill vacancies in her cabinet, choosing mostly experienced interim administrators whom she hired out of retirement.

"I thought, Let’s designate people who were at the top of their game when they retired who have no vested interest in getting the permanent position, who could help me think about structures, efficiencies, effectiveness," she says. "It’s not a comment or criticism about the past. It’s looking forward."

She plans to bolster student-affairs programs and involve academic departments more deeply in the university’s decision-making process.

Another goal is to develop a plan to resolve "operating issues" at the Green Music Center, which includes a 1,400-seat, state-of-the-art concert hall. The center, which opened in 2012, cost $145 million, several times its initial budget. The cost helped fuel a faculty no-confidence vote in Ruben Armiñana, Ms. Sakaki’s predecessor, in 2007. He retired from the top post in June after having led the institution for 24 years.

The music center regularly hosts world-class performers — Ms. Sakaki says she has already introduced Yo-Yo Ma and the comedian Trevor Noah there — but a deficit is projected for this year.

The new president’s team is also working on the larger question of how to weave the center into "the very fabric" of the university. One way might be through an artists-in-residence program, Ms. Sakaki says. For now, a new program allows some students to attend performances free of charge as part of their coursework.

Public events, like a recent Marvel movie marathon, have brought young people from the surrounding community to the campus. Ms. Sakaki says she hopes such events will draw new applicants and eventually attract a more diverse student body — which she is keen to do.

Ms. Sakaki’s parents were sent to U.S. internment camps during World War II, and in 2009 she helped lead a panel that worked toward granting honorary degrees to about 700 Japanese-Americans whose studies at the University of California had been cut short by the internments. She grew up in Oakland, Calif., and remembers that most of her high-school friends didn’t go to college.

"The world is changing so fast. It’s changed fast for me," she says. "I’m just incredibly honored and excited and want other students to have that same ability to reach for a future they can’t even yet imagine — because certainly I never imagined this when I was growing up." — Jenny Rogers

Retiring, but Just Sort Of

Trish Hummer
Craig Weidemann
Craig Weidemann, vice president for outreach and vice provost for online education at Pennsylvania State University at University Park, handed in his resignation letter in June and went home to his wife, not with news of retirement, but with plans to start a new job.

"I told my wife, ‘They want me to stay,’ " he says. "And I’ll stay as long as I can add value."

Mr. Weidemann, who has worked in higher education for more than 36 years, will become special assistant for innovation and education-technology initiatives to the executive vice president and provost, Nicholas P. Jones, in 2017, after retiring from his current posts in December.

What attracted Mr. Weidemann to join Penn State in 2003 was the promise of advancing its online World Campus.

In 2003, the online program had 3,175 students in 27 programs. In 2016 it had 17,487 students in 125 academic programs.

Many institutions now offer online programs, but when Penn State began its World Campus, there were few. It was "pioneering work," says Mr. Weidemann,

The university wanted the online effort to be identical to traditional programs, so cooperation with department heads was vital. "To build an innovation like this inside a large traditional institution," he says, "took a lot of collaboration with colleagues who were willing to take risks, faculty who were willing to teach online, when it was not as ubiquitous."

As the World Campus grew, the online-education landscape changed, especially with the introduction of massive open online courses in 2011.

MOOCs "created tremendous visibility around online learning," he says. "It added a great deal of credibility but also came across like online learning was just discovered."

Mr. Weidemann says the World Campus has remained competitive by focusing on student experience and strengthening ties between graduates of the program and the university’s alumni association.

As he looks toward his new role, he says his successor will face the same challenges he had. "How do you make sure you are a leader," he says, "rather than a reactor to changes in technology and the role they play in teaching and learning?" — Mary Bowerman

In Commemoration

The late, longtime president of the University of Notre Dame, the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, will be featured on a "Forever" postage stamp next year, the United States Postal Service said in September.

Father Hesburgh, who died last year at age 97, led Notre Dame from 1952 to 1987. Among his 16 U.S. presidential appointments was one in 1957 to the newly created U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. During the 15 years he served on the commission, it looked into violations of voting rights and other acts of racial discrimination. — Ruth Hammond

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