Sonoma State president put on leave for ‘insubordination’ for supporting Israel academic boycott, divestment

The president of Sonoma State University was placed on leave Wednesday, a day after he released a controversial campuswide message on the Israel-Hamas war that said the university would pursue “divestment strategies” and endorsed an academic boycott of Israeli universities.

California State University Chancellor Mildred García announced the decision in a statement posted to the CSU website, saying that Sonoma State President Mike Lee was taken off the job for his “insubordination” in making the statement without “appropriate approvals.”

Pro-Palestinian student encampment protesters celebrated when Lee released a letter to the roughly 6,000-student member Rohnert Park campus on Tuesday that met enough of their requests for activists to agree to dismantle their camp by Wednesday evening.

“SSU Demands Met!” said a post on the SSU Students for Justice in Palestine Instagram with the caption “brick by brick, wall by wall” that showed screenshots of Lee’s letter.

In his letter, Lee promised to pursue “divestment strategies that include seeking ethical alternatives” in consultation with pro-Palestinian activists and said he supported an academic boycott of Israel.

“SSU will 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,” Lee’s Tuesday letter said.

Lee’s statement stood out. While other universities have recently said they will look into divesting from weapons companies, including UC Berkeley and UC Riverside, nearly all in the U.S. have rejected calls to target Israel specifically or to boycott formal exchange or research partnerships with Israeli universities.

In rejecting such calls, the universities have cited their support of academic freedom and anti-discrimination policies. Some have also noted that a 2016 state law signed by then Gov. Jerry Brown banned giving state grants or contracts worth more than $100,000 to state universities that targeted Israel in endorsing the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.

Lee’s statement immediately drew criticism from Jewish students, parents and community groups.

Speaking at a Jewish Public Affairs Committee of California conference in Sacramento on Wednesday, California Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, who serves on the CSU Board of Trustees, slammed campuses for moving forward with agreements to quell protests.

“Each campus is handling these situations in their own way with inconsistencies and frankly, sometimes coming up with agreements that they really don’t have the authority to come up with,” said Kounalakis, who spoke before Lee was put on leave.

Kounalakis, a Democrat, said campuses were “woefully unprepared” for the recent protests.

Gov. Gavin Newsom, who made a video appearance at the same Wednesday event to promote his plan to counter antisemitism, said last week that he did “not support divestment.”

Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel (D-Encino) and Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), co-chairs of the California Legislative Jewish Caucus, commended García‘s decision, saying in a statement that Lee’s support of an academic boycott “was totally unacceptable and evidence that former President Lee is unfit to lead one of our great state institutions. We look forward to working with Chancellor García and the CSU Trustees to pursue a different path that will promote learning, respectful dialogue, mutual respect, inclusivity, and peace.”

In her letter announcing that Lee would step aside, García said she was “deeply concerned” about his words.

“Our role as educators is to support and uplift all members of the California State University. I want to acknowledge how deeply concerned I am about the impact the statement has had on the Sonoma State community, and how challenging and painful it will be for many of our students and community members to see and read,” García said. “The heart and mission of the CSU is to create an inclusive and welcoming place for everyone we serve, not to marginalize one community over another.”

In his own letter on his departure, Lee apologized, saying he had “marginalized other members of our student population” and that “I realize the harm that this has caused, and I take full ownership of it. I deeply regret the unintended consequences of my actions.”

“I want to be clear: The message was drafted and sent without the approval of, or consultation with, the Chancellor or other system leaders. The points outlined in the message were mine alone, and do not represent the views of my colleagues or the CSU,” Lee wrote.

It was unclear how long Lee will be out. He has been on the job for 20 months, about half the time as interim president.

In an interview with The Times, kinesiology professor Lauren Morimoto said she supported Lee.

“As of now, the Academic Senate has not made a statement about Mike Lee’s announcement. However, I’m meeting with the Board of the Asian Pacific Islander American Faculty and Staff Association and we stand in solidarity with Mike Lee and the student protesters…,” said Morimoto, the former chair of the academic senate. “I will ask to be added to tomorrow’s agenda to present a resolution of support for Mike Lee and the student protesters and the demands they were able to negotiate with the university.”

Staff writers Colleen Shalby and Mackenzie Mays contributed reporting.

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