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Sonoma State President on Leave After Controversial Agreement with Gaza Protesters
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By Anthony Haddad
Published 2 weeks ago on
May 16, 2024

Sonoma State University President Mike Lee was placed on administrative leave after sending an unauthorized email outlining a controversial agreement with pro-Palestinian protesters, sparking criticism and uncertainty about the future of the agreement. (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)

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Sonoma State University experienced a major upheaval Wednesday afternoon when President Mike Lee announced his temporary departure, following a contentious email he sent to students and faculty concerning the demands of campus pro-Palestinian protesters, the Press-Democrat reported today.

Lee’s Terms of Leave are Unknown

The duration of Lee’s absence is unclear. In a statement on Wednesday, California State University Chancellor Mildred Garcia said:

“On Tuesday evening, Sonoma State University President Mike Lee sent a campuswide message concerning an agreement with campus protesters. That message was sent without the appropriate approvals … because of this insubordination and consequences it has brought upon the system, President Lee has been placed on administrative leave.”

SSU spokesman Jeff Keating did not specify how long Lee will be away or whether he will return. Lee became interim president 20 months ago after Judy Sakaki resigned and was made permanent a year ago.

Lee Outlined Agreement in the Email

In his Tuesday memo, Lee outlined an agreement with students and community members who had been camped on the school’s Person Lawn since April 26, in protest against the Hamas-Israel war, echoing scenes at other universities nationwide.

Among the four “points of agreement” he mentioned was a commitment to disclose university vendor contracts and explore “divestment strategies.”

Under the “Academic Boycott” section, Lee stated that the school would not engage in formal collaborations that are “sponsored by, or represent, the Israeli state academic and research institutions.”

Stephen Bittner, chair of the Sonoma State history department and director of its Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Genocide, expressed shock at these provisions, calling them highly problematic.

“The academic boycott of Israel is atrocious and morally reprehensible, in my view,” he told The Press Democrat in Santa Rosa on Wednesday, before Lee was placed on leave. “It is contrary to the values of scholarly freedom and free exchange that are supposed to be at the center of any university.

“We do not shun people we disagree with. We interact with them. I am deeply disappointed in President Lee for caving to pressure to participate in a boycott of Israel.”

Lee Acknowledges His Error

In an email sent late Wednesday afternoon announcing his immediate departure, Lee acknowledged his error.

“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. I now realize that many of the statements I made in my campus-wide message did just the opposite,” he said.

“In my attempt to find agreement with one group of students, I marginalized other members of our student population and community. I realize the harm that this has caused, and I take full ownership of it.”

In a statement issued Wednesday evening, Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, whose district includes the university, said, “I appreciate Chancellor Garcia’s quick response to this situation. We need stability and thoughtful leadership at Sonoma State.”

Protesters Leave in Exchange for Concessions

The protesters agreed to pack up and leave by 8 p.m. Wednesday in exchange for the concessions.

By 3 p.m., all 26 tents in the encampment were gone.

With Lee on leave, it is unclear if the terms of the agreement will be honored.

Despite the agreement, there were plans for some form of protest during SSU’s commencement ceremonies on Saturday.

“We don’t want to ruin anybody’s graduation or cause mass disruption,” said student and protest organizer Julianna M., before news broke of Lee’s ouster. “However, protest, resistance is not meant to be convenient and it is meant to be disruptive, at least visually.”

Sacramento State Also Reached Agreement with Protesters

The Rohnert Park campus was one of the first in the 23-member California State University system to reach such an agreement with its administration. Sacramento State had reached a similar agreement the previous week, which was mentioned during the SSU negotiations.

The protesters, organized by SSU Students for Palestine, had outlined four demands concerning the university’s ties to the occupation of Palestinian territories and Israel’s military actions in Gaza.

The student group posted screenshots of Lee’s email to its Instagram account, along with a graphic stating, “SSU demands met.”

“We did it,” exclaimed Albert Levine, 21, an organizer of the encampment.

Professor Points Out Problems Posed by Boycott

Bittner, the SSU history professor, noted that such a boycott “is not a hypothetical to me.”

The university’s Holocaust and Genocide Lecture Series, which he directs, often involves scholars with affiliations to Israeli institutions. “Most recently, we had Jeff Kopstein from UC Irvine. He visited in January of this year. Kopstein is also a recurring visiting professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

“So, what am I supposed to do? Does Kopstein have to renounce his affiliation with Hebrew University in order to participate in our lecture series?”

Bittner emphasized that he is “not unsympathetic to the Palestinian cause, or to the extent of suffering in Gaza since Oct. 8, the day after the massacre.”

“I, too, am a proponent of a two-state solution. I am a proponent of an immediate cease-fire. However, universities have to be free places. The president’s statement infringes on some of the core freedoms of university life.”

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Anthony Haddad,
Multimedia Journalist
Anthony W. Haddad, who graduated from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo with his undergraduate degree and has an MBA at Fresno State, is the Swiss Army knife of GV Wire. He writes stories, manages social media, and represents the organization on the ground.

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