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A photo illustration of Mike Lee and Sonoma State University.

Sonoma State University President Mike Lee was placed on leave by California State University officials over alleged insubordination after he announced a deal with pro-Palestinian protesters that included an academic boycott of Israeli institutions.

Photo illustration by Justin Morrison/Inside Higher Ed | California State University System | Sanoma State University

Sonoma State University President Mike Lee has been placed on administrative leave after sending a campus-wide email about a deal with pro-Palestinian protesters that led California State University system officials to accuse him of insubordination.

Sonoma State, like many campuses across the nation, has been navigating demands from student protesters that the university divest endowment funds from Israel and break academic ties with universities there as casualties have surpassed 35,000 in the war between Israel and Hamas. Other demands at Sonoma State included greater campus support for Palestinian students.

In his response, Lee agreed to some demands, including a review of contracts to consider divestment possibilities, the introduction of a Palestine studies curriculum and the inclusion of Students for Justice in Palestine on an SSU advisory council. Lee also agreed to what is effectively an academic boycott of Israel, though he noted that Sonoma State has no current institutional ties to Israel.

Now Lee is on administrative leave for an unspecified period of time. The move marks a rare public rebuke from the CSU system over how campus presidents have handled the protests.

A Deal and a Debacle

Lee stepped into the Sonoma State job in August 2022 after former President Judy Sakaki resigned amid controversy in June 2022. Sakaki was accused of mishandling a sexual harassment scandal involving her husband, Patrick McCallum, who allegedly acted inappropriately with several university employees and later defied a ban to stay off the Sonoma State campus.

After almost two years in the presidency, Lee—a longtime administrator in the California State system who came out of retirement to lead Sonoma State—now has his own controversy.

“Student activism, protest and dissent in service of social and political change are key democratic principles that allow us to imagine a more perfect union—not only for ourselves, but also for others,” Lee wrote in the email announcing a deal with protesters. “None of us should be on the sidelines when human beings are subject to mass killing and destruction. I have said this before and it merits repeating: There is no political, religious or cultural principle that merits the murder of the innocent, and the one battle we should all be engaged in is the fight for inclusion, respect, and freedom for all people, regardless of their background or identity.”

While various universities that have made deals with protesters have agreed to be more transparent about endowment funds, weigh divestment and offer more resources for Palestinian students, Lee’s agreement takes the unusual step of agreeing to an academic boycott of Israel. Such moves are both rare and controversial, with scholarly communities—including those critical of Israel’s use of deadly force—split. While some scholarly associations have backed academic boycotts of Israel, others haven’t. Academic boycotts remain rare for institutions and hotly debated among scholarly associations.

While Sonoma State does not have any current affiliations with Israeli universities, he promised not to “pursue or engage in any study-abroad programs, faculty exchanges, or other formal collaborations” representing or sponsored by Israeli “academic and research institutions.”

Blowback to Lee’s email was swift.

“Yesterday the President of Sonoma State University aligned the campus with [boycott, divest and sanctions], a movement whose goal is the destruction of Israel, home to 7 [million] Jews,” state Senator Scott Wiener wrote on social media. “Several other [University of California] & CSU campuses are doing this more subtly. Sonoma State simply said the quiet part out loud.”

Wiener, a Democrat, has accused campus protesters broadly of engaging in antisemitism.

Stephen Bittner, chair of Sonoma State’s history department and director of its Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Genocide told Inside Higher Ed by email that he was “disappointed and angry” when he read the announcement, which he called “unusual and unprecedented and deeply flawed.” Of particular concern to Bittner was the agreement to an academic boycott of Israel.

“In embracing an academic boycott of Israel, President Lee sacrificed freedoms that are core to the mission of a university, namely the free and unfettered exchange of ideas. He did so with little to no input from faculty members,” Bittner wrote, adding that the center he directs at Sonoma State frequently brings academics affiliated with Israeli institutions to campus for a lecture series.

He added that Lee went too far in making curricular promises part of the deal, noting that while he was in favor of expanding Middle Eastern studies and hiring qualified professors to do so, “the curriculum is the prerogative of the faculty and there is a long-existing process for creating new curricular programs.” He accused Lee of circumventing established processes and said it was “wildly inappropriate to give a student group such a central role in these matters.”

CSU Chancellor Mildred García was more measured in announcing that Lee was on leave.

“The [Board of Trustees] leadership and I are actively reviewing the matter and will provide additional details in the near future. For now, because of this insubordination and consequences it has brought upon the system, President Lee has been placed on administrative l​eave,” García wrote Wednesday, adding that Lee’s email “was sent without the appropriate approvals.”

García also raised concerns about the possible divisiveness of the email, stating she is “deeply concerned” about “the impact the statement has had” at Sonoma State “and how challenging and painful it will be​ for many of our students and community members to see and read.”

Lee quickly apologized in an email sent Wednesday.

“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. I deeply regret the unintended consequences of my actions,” Lee wrote.

He also took responsibility for the message, noting that it “was drafted and sent without the approval of, or consultation with, the Chancellor or other system leaders” and emphasized that the views therein were solely his “and do not represent the views of my colleagues or the CSU.”

In the aftermath of Lee being placed on leave, some Jewish advocacy groups celebrated.

“This is a first step in correcting a terrible misstep which put Jewish students on campus in danger,” the Anti-Defamation League’s California office wrote on social media on Wednesday.

California’s Legislative Jewish Caucus also applauded the move in a statement issued Wednesday, declaring that Lee was “unfit to lead one of our great state institutions.”

With Lee on administrative leave, it is unclear if Sonoma State will honor the agreement he struck with protesters. Neither university nor system officials provided an answer to an Inside Higher Ed inquiry on whether the university intends to uphold the deal Lee negotiated with students.

In response to García’s announcement that Lee had been placed on leave, the Sonoma State chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine posted on Instagram: “We choose insubordination.”

And one local reporter noted on X that “Justice for Mike Lee” messages have appeared on the Sonoma campus.

Presidents Struggle With Protest Responses

The fallout from Lee’s email illustrates the precarious situation many college presidents are in as they try to navigate demands from protesters. Some have struck deals with protesters to clear encampments while others have responded with tear gas, rubber bullets, and mass arrests.

At colleges that have agreed to weigh divestment, presidents have come under fire for capitulating to protesters, which many critics have described as embracing antisemitism. And Congress has taken notice. Presidents from Rutgers University and Northwestern University are scheduled to appear before the House Education and the Workforce Committee next week, alongside the chancellor of the University of California, Los Angeles (which has not made a deal with protesters). Congress also opened an investigation into alleged antisemitism at Northwestern.

Jewish groups on and off campus have also raised concerns.

Individual campus decisions have also drawn the ire of system heads elsewhere, such as at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, where administrators struck a deal with protesters, offering several concessions, including meeting with students to discuss divestment.

In a social media post, Universities of Wisconsin System president Jay Rothman said he was “disappointed by the course taken by UW-Milwaukee” and is assessing “the decision-making process that led to this result.” (A UW spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.)

But presidents who have forcefully cracked down on protests have also faced criticism.

Faculty members and others have condemned the forceful clearing of demonstrators at Emory University, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Virginia, and elsewhere, alleging presidents chose heavy-handed tactics and unnecessary force in breaking up campus protests.

What will happen next at Sonoma State remains unclear with California State system officials tight-lipped about when—or if—Lee will return to the presidency.

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