Sonoma State president agreed to Israel boycott demanded by protesters. He’s been suspended.

A pact with pro-Palestinian protesters with concessions that included divestment from Israel has placed the President of a California State University campus in deep trouble with CSU system brass.

A surprising move by the President of a California State University campus to strike an agreement over demands issued by pro-Palestinian protesters occupying the school has prompted a backlash.

For starters, the president – Sonoma State University President Mike Lee – is at least temporarily out of his post, the California State University system Chancellor announced on Tuesday evening.


The backstory: Protesters set up an encampment on campus three weeks ago, leading to a number of meetings with senior administrators. 

  • Lee met with the protesters on May 10 and again on Tuesday to listen to and discuss the demands from the students. 
  • The protesters were organized by SSU Students for Palestine 

The big picture: On Tuesday night SSU Students for Palestine said on Instagram that its demands were met by Lee and the university. 

  • Sonoma State will establish the Advisory Council of Students for Justice in Palestine to ensure that university administration is held accountable for meeting the demands. 
  • The advisory council will consist of protesters from the encampment, faculty, staff, administrators, Palestinian alumni and other interested students. 
  • The council will meet regularly beginning in late August. 

The agreement: Sonoma State has agreed to meet four demands from the protesters: disclosure and divestment, academic boycott, recognize Palestinian identity and introduce historic curriculum and a call for a cease-fire in Gaza. 

  • Sonoma State is reviewing all SSU Foundation investments, including all vendor contracts, and will meet with the advisory council to determine divestment strategies. 
  • While the CSU International Programs are not currently working with any Israeli universities, the university says it will not pursue or engage in any study abroad programs, faculty exchanges or other collaborations that are sponsored by or represent Israel. 
  • The university plans to build out the curriculum and programming for Palestine Studies beginning in the fall. 
  • Lee also said in the email that he personally calls for a cease-fire in Gaza. 

What they were saying: “Student protests and political action are cornerstones of higher education and democracy, and we unequivocally condemn hate and bias in all forms,” Lee wrote. “SSU administration supports students’ right to engage in peaceful activism without fear for their personal safety or any form of retaliation. We understand that many people feel anxious and fearful, particularly when standing for what they believe. We ask that everyone do their part to support one another, to ensure that Sonoma State is a safe and inclusive place for all.” 

We’ll CSU about that: CSU system officials announced on Tuesday evening that the agreement struck by Lee with protesters was done without authorization from the CSU Chancellor.

  • CSU Chancellor Mildred Garcia said in a statement that Lee’s message was sent without the appropriate approvals. 
  • The CSU Board leadership and Garcia are actively reviewing the matter, but promptly moved to place Lee on leave.

What the CSU is saying: “For now, because of this insubordination and consequences it has brought upon the system, President Lee has been placed on administrative leave,” Garcia said. 

  • Deputy Vice Chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs and Chief Academic Officer Nathan Evans is stepping in as acting president of Sonoma State. 
  • “Our role as educators is to support and uplift all members of the California State University,” Garcia said. “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. 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.” 
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