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Sonoma State president placed on leave for ‘insubordination’ for supporting university boycott, divestment from Israel

The president of Sonoma State University was placed on leave Wednesday, a day after posting a controversial campus-wide message about the war between Israel and Hamas, in which he claimed 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 on the CSU website, saying Sonoma State President Mike Lee had been removed from office. functions for his “insubordination” by making this statement without “proper approvals.”

Pro-Palestinian student camp protesters celebrated Lee’s release of a letter Tuesday to the Rohnert Park campus of about 6,000 students that addressed enough of their demands that activists agreed to dismantle their camp by Wednesday evening.

“The demands of the SSU are met! » said a post on the SSU Students for Palestine Justice 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 study abroad programs, faculty exchanges or other formal collaborations that are sponsored by or represent the academic and research institutions of the Israeli state,” the statement said. letter from Lee on Tuesday.

Lee’s statement stood out. While other universities have recently said they would consider divesting from arms companies, including UC Berkeley and UC Riverside, almost all in the United States have rejected calls to specifically target Israel or boycott formal exchanges or research partnerships with Israeli universities.

In rejecting these calls, universities cited their support for academic freedom and anti-discrimination policies. Some also noted that a 2016 state law signed by then-Governor Jerry Brown prohibited awarding grants or contracts worth more than $100,000 to state universities that targeted Israel by supporting the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.

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

Speaking Wednesday at a Jewish Public Affairs Committee of California conference in Sacramento, California Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, who serves on the CSU Board of Trustees, criticized campuses for cutting deals aimed at suppressing the demonstrations.

“Every campus handles these situations in its own way, with inconsistencies and, frankly, sometimes resulting in agreements that they don’t really have the authority to make,” said Kounalakis, who spoke before Lee be placed on leave.

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

Gov. Gavin Newsom, who made a video appearance at the same event Wednesday to promote his plan to combat anti-Semitism, said last week that he “does not support divestment.”

Assemblyman Jesse Gabriel (D-Encino) and Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), co-chairs of the California Jewish Legislative Caucus, praised García’s decision, saying in a statement that Lee’s support for an academic boycott “was completely unacceptable and proof that former President Lee is not fit to lead one of our great state institutions.” We look forward to working with Chancellor García and CSU administrators to pursue a different path that will promote learning, respectful dialogue, mutual respect, inclusion and peace.

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

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

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

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

It’s unclear how long Lee will be out. He has been in office for 20 months, about half of his time as interim president.

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

“At this time, the Academic Senate has not made any statement regarding Mike Lee’s announcement. However, I am meeting with the board of directors of the Asian Pacific Islander Faculty and Staff Association and we stand in solidarity with Mike Lee and the student protesters…,” said Morimoto, the former president of the University Senate. “I will ask to be added to tomorrow’s agenda to present a resolution in support of Mike Lee and the student protesters and the demands they were able to negotiate with the university.”

Editors Colleen Shalby and Mackenzie Mays contributed reporting.

California Daily Newspapers

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