SSU’s New Japanese-American President

by Jonah Raskin, June 29, 2016

He’s the toughest of acts to follow. Moreover, no one will ever be as controversial as he has been. Indeed, during his decades-long tenure at Sonoma State University, President Ruben Armiñana, altered the face of the campus with the construction of new buildings, especially the Green Music Center, a venue for internationally renowned performers like Yo-Yo Ma. Now that he’s gone, the place won’t ever be the same as it was when he first arrived as a largely untested Cuban-born administrator with a vision for the future of a curious institution of higher learning that had mostly stood outside the cross-currents of intellectual life in America.

I taught at SSU for 30 years. I loved the library, the swimming pool and the students. The faculty, with a few exceptions, got all tangled up in disputes with Armiñana that did no one any good at all. Now SSU has a new, notable President, Dr. Judy Sakaki, who started near the bottom of the academic ladder, or very close to it, and worked her way to the top. And she did it her own way, doggedly, persistently. Moreover, she’s living proof that the Golden State is a meritocracy, and that members of minorities can and do succeed in a highly competitive environment.

Sakaki

Sakaki

What follows here are some highlights from Sakaki’s life that went against the grain and that defied the odds against her as a Japanese American woman whose parents and grandparents were placed in internment camps during World War II.

In her senior year at Skyline High School in the city of Oakland, where she was born and raised, a guidance counselor urged her to pursue a career in sales. She fit the profile or so he thought. Dutifully, she went to work at Newberry’s, the five-and-dime store, and promptly noticed that most of the employees were women of color in their fifties and sixties. It didn’t take her long to decide she didn’t want to sell stuff all her life. She walked away from the job and never turned back.

For inspiration, Sakaki looked to her Japanese grandmother — a “picture bride” — who came to America not knowing a word of English or the man who would become her husband, but who married, raised a family and inspired her children and grandchildren.

No one in the Sakaki family had attended college, much less graduated. Judy was the very first to do so and in that way she’s like thousands of students in California who venture into uncharted territories, go to college, get an education and achieve excellence. In 1975, Sakaki earned a B.A. from Hayward State, now known as California State University, East Bay. A year later, she had an M.S. in clinical counseling. Then, not surprisingly, she wanted a doctorate, though a faculty member she admired discouraged her from pursuing one.

Undaunted, she received a Ph.D. from UC Berkeley in 1991. Every since then, she’s been a kind of wonder woman who has worked as an administrator and made her mark as a fierce advocate for equal opportunities for all. There’s practically nothing she won’t do to bring people together, persuade them to share their experiences and pool their stories and dreams.

How’s this for an item on an extensive and impressive curriculum vita?

In 2005, as the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs at UC Davis, she took first price in the annual cow-milking contest, though as a “city girl,” she’d never milked a single cow or spent time in a pasture or a barn. Judy Sasaki isn’t afraid to roll up her sleeves and get to work.

Moreover, she doesn’t worry about a little spilt milk.

At UC Davis, she was legendary for her “Walk ‘n’ Talk Sessions.” Instead of sitting in her office for meetings, she would go outside, stroll across campus and discuss matters of vital concern with teachers, students, staff, faculty members and representatives of the community.

Over the years, there hasn’t been an aspect of academic life that’s eluded her, whether its college sports, student mental health, recruiting Native American high school students, and as she puts it, “educating undergraduates to become citizens of the world and make the world a better place.” She really is an idealist. Moreover, at her most recent position, as Vice President for student affairs in the office of the President for the entire University of California, she managed a $58 million budget. She has a head for figures as well as a big heart.

On July 1, 2016 she officially takes the reins as SSU’s eighth President and only the second woman, after Marjorie Wagner. Her long, illustrious career in academia looks like the best of preparations for her new position.

“I hope people enjoy what they do here at SSU,” Sakaki said. “I hope everyone finds joy and fulfillment.” With an attitude like that, she’s sure to make friends and create a new, hospitable environment on the campus of the school that has gone from Granola State and Frisbee U. to an institution of higher learning that draws students from all across California.

“The glass is always half-full, not half-empty,” Sakaki explained. “We’re all in the process of getting better together.”

She’s unlikely to raise the millions that Armiñana raised, or to oversee the furious construction of buildings that took place under his administration, but she’s likely to make SSU better known nationally and to shake-up and animate a rather staid campus.

Welcome Judy Sakaki.

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