California university president placed on leave after agreeing to boycott Israeli institutions
Ruben Salazar Hall on campus of Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, Calif. Credit: Stepheng3 via Wikimedia Commons.

By Philissa Cramer
May 16, 2024

(JTA) — On Tuesday night, the president of Sonoma State University sent an email to his school community announcing an academic boycott of Israel and other concessions to pro-Palestinian protesters on his campus.

On Wednesday afternoon, he sent another surprising message: He was taking a leave of absence.

“In my attempt to find agreement with one group of students, I marginalized other members of our student population and community,” Mike Lee wrote in the second email. “I realize the harm that this has caused, and I take full ownership of it. I deeply regret the unintended consequences of my actions.”

The president of California State University, the public system to which Sonoma State belongs, said Lee had been suspended for “insubordination” after announcing the agreement without approval.

The rapid developments at Sonoma State came after Lee negotiated with pro-Palestinian protesters who had established an encampment on the northern California public university campus, in keeping with a national trend that has placed pressure on university administrators across the country. But the steps that Lee announced went much further than those that have tended to feature in other agreements, which generally have committed to a future discussion or vote on divestment.

Among the demands that Lee said he had accepted was a pledge that Sonoma State would “not pursue or engage in any study abroad programs, faculty exchanges, or other formal collaborations that are sponsored by, or represent, the Israeli state academic and research institutions.”

Critics of Israel have long called for academic boycotts along those lines, but no school in the United States had ever agreed to one before Lee’s announcement, made Tuesday after meeting twice with encampment protesters. The announcement said that “Israeli scholars acting in a personal capacity” would still be welcome on campus.

The boycott announcement came in a school-wide email that also detailed agreements to seek divestment from Israel, to create an “Advisory Council of Students for Justice in Palestine” that would play a role in university decision-making and to call for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza. “None of us should be on the sidelines when human beings are subject to mass killing and destruction,” Lee wrote.

Less than a day later, he had been suspended. His message had been sent without “the appropriate approvals,” Mildred Garcia, president of the Cal State system, said in a statement. “Because of this insubordination and consequences it has brought upon the system, President Lee has been placed on administrative l​eave,” she said, adding that she understood how “challenging and painful” the agreement email had been for many.

Garcia’s statement came after Jewish groups in California mobilized over Sonoma State’s agreement with protesters.

“You must reverse your decision immediately or we will demand your termination,” a letter that the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Bay Area urged people to customize and send to Lee. “The actions outlined in your letter tell Jewish and Israeli students that they are not welcome at Sonoma State University.”

And the Jewish Public Affairs Committee of California, an umbrella group including dozens of Jewish organizations, named Sonoma State in a letter sent Wednesday to Garcia and Michael Drake, president of the University of California system (which is separate), expressing steep concern about the concessions being made to pro-Palestinian protests across the state.

“The civil rights of Jewish students and faculty are not a bargaining chip that can be used to quell campus unrest,” the letter said.

Just hours after the JCRC sent out its community alert, Lee announced that he was stepping down, at least temporarily.

“My goal when meeting with students at the encampment was to explore opportunities to make meaningful change, identify common ground. and create a safe and inclusive campus for all,” Lee wrote. “I now realize that many of the statements I made in my campuswide message did just the opposite.”

Soon after, another message came from the JCRC to its email list expressing relief that Lee had stepped aside. “This decisive response is a result of action by the Jewish community and we thank everyone who has written to President Lee,” it said.

Also applauding the suspension was the Jewish Caucus, a group of Jewish members of the state legislature that lobbies on Jewish concerns and had raised an alarm about Lee’s agreement. The lawmakers said his endorsement of an academic boycott was evidence that he is “unfit to lead one of our great state institutions.”

Other schools have made concessions to protesters but not gone as far. For example, some schools have permitted pro-Palestinian student leaders to address their boards to request divestment, but other leaders have not themselves endorsed divestment; San Francisco State University, also part of the Cal State system, agreed Wednesday to disclose more details about its investments and to seek to divest from weapons manufacturers. Not all schools have made concessions: Some have used law enforcement to clear encampments, and a handful of encampments have folded voluntarily in recent days.

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