Meet the new Sonoma State University boss, same as the old boss.
Ming-Tung “Mike” Lee, who took over as the school’s interim president in August of 2022, has had the “interim” tag removed from his title.
Lee’s promotion to president was announced in a Wednesday memo from Jolene Koester, interim chancellor of the 23-school California State University system, headquartered in Long Beach.
It was Koester who talked Lee out of retirement in 2022 to replace former President Judy Sakaki, who resigned amid a sexual harassment and retaliation scandal linked to her and her then-husband Patrick McCallum. At the time, Lee was happily retired and four years removed from his Sacramento State University, where he’d spent 18 years in various high-level roles.
Speaking on the phone from Long Beach Wednesday, Lee said he was “not completely surprised” by the appointment.
He’d been hearing some positive feedback, he said, from both the Chancellor’s office and the Sonoma State “community,” about “the positive changes they have seen on campus.”
His promotion, said Lee, “is a confirmation of what I’ve been doing and what the university has been doing.
“I’m happy about that.”
Upon taking the job, Lee inherited a pair of interconnected crises. Enrollment at the Rohnert Park campus, depressed by wildfires, then the COVID-19 pandemic, had plunged 33% from 2016 to 2022, resulting in a $16 million deficit.
While the number of students on campus hasn’t appreciably increased during Lee’s tenure, Koester praised him in a statement for taking “bold, meaningful and collaborative steps to enhance Sonoma State’s enrollment management policies and practices and to strengthen vital pipelines with area high schools and community colleges.”
Lee and other SSU administrators have traveled to Southern California to meet with the presidents of the nine colleges in the Los Angeles Community College District, to promote Sonoma State.
The university is now signing agreements with North Bay school districts. If high school students meet certain academic requirements, they are guaranteed admission to the university. SSU has similar arrangements with “all community colleges in the area,” Lee told the Press Democrat in April.
Meanwhile, Lee and his team have been working to balance the university’s budget “with the least amount of disruption to our operation.”
In its search for savings, the Administration has worked hard, Lee said, “to be transparent about what we are doing.”
“Wild fall” coming
Disruption is coming, whether Lee and his team like it or not. In a May 17 memo to SSU employees, Provost Karen Moranski made foreboding mention of the $17 million deficit facing the university “for the next fiscal year.” That, and other projected fiscal hits would necessitate “strategic reorganizations at the departments and school levels,” she wrote.
As one professor put it, “It’s going to be a wild fall.”
The CSU Board of Trustees’ decision to make Lee’s title permanent is a clear sign that it has confidence in his approach to those problems.
“He has demonstrated himself to be a prudent steward of university resources, while maintaining the institution’s unwavering focus on academic excellence and student success,” said Koester.
Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, whose district includes SSU, expressed appreciation for “the steady hand and leadership that President Lee has provided at a critical juncture for the university.” Lee, he added, is “the right person to carry the university forward.”
Professor David McCuan, chair of the university’s political science department, called the CSU Board of Trustees’ decision to remove Lee’s interim tag as “an important development for SSU to turn the corner, and to start to live up to its potential.”
McCuan was a frequent critic of Sakaki, who presided over numerous upgrades to the quality of student life. Some faculty, however, questioned her commitment to Academic Affairs – their turf.
“A great fit”
Having no doubt heard those criticisms, Lee has worked tirelessly since his arrival to reach out to professors. He’s attended every faculty senate meeting, and joined them at a recent retreat.
During the fall semester Lee visited “every single unit and office of this university,” he said, to speak with professors and to “know more about what they do, what’s important to them, what projects they’re doing.”
McCuan didn’t much care for the process by which the CSU system selected Lee. That exercise, he said, could be “more transparent,” and should “involve the local campus community more broadly, and in a more substantial manner.
“Long Beach (where the CSU system is headquartered) needs to dictate less, and engage more.”
But he’s a fan of the end result.
“Mike is a great fit for us.”
“I am honored to continue leading Sonoma State and to help bring transformative, world-class educational opportunities to the students of the North Bay,” Lee said, in a statement from the chancellor’s office.
“As the first member of my family to earn a college degree, I understand the profound impact it can make on the life of a student and on their family.”
As Lee told the Press Democrat last year, his father fled mainland China to Taiwan in 1949, to escape Mao Zedong’s communist rule. His father had three years of schooling, total. His mother was illiterate. But young Ming-Tung loved books, so they sacrificed to buy them for him. Lee applied to Tunghai University, where the acceptance rate was 10%, he recalled.
He got in, and visited the library on his first day as a collegian.
“To this day, as I sit here talking to you,” he said, “I still remember the smell of all those books. Never in my life had I seen so many books in one place, that I could touch, and pull off the shelf. It was a wonderful feeling.”