Sonoma State President to Retire After Voicing Support of Divesting from Israeli Universities

Published: May 20, 2024

ROHNERT PARK, Calif. — Sonoma State University President Mike Lee announced he will retire after he was placed on leave for sending a campuswide message claiming the school would pursue ways to divest from Israeli organizations and endorsing an academic boycott of Israeli universities.

California State University Chancellor Mildred García announced the suspension in a statement Wednesday, indicating Lee was placed on leave for “insubordination” in making the statement without “appropriate approvals.”

In his letter, Lee, who has been on the job for a year and previously served as interim president for eight months, promised to pursue “divestment strategies that include seeking ethical alternatives” in consultation with pro-Palestinian activists. He also said the school “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.”

While other universities have agreed to divest from weapons companies with ties to Israel, including UC Berkeley and UC Riverside, nearly all have rejected calls to boycott formal exchange or research partnerships with Israeli universities, the LA Times reports. Harvard officials have also reached an agreement with pro-Palestine demonstrators. In exchange for the protestors taking down their encampment, the school said it would retract student suspensions and broach the topic of divesting from companies affiliated with Israel, reports USA Today.

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The office of state Senator Bill Dodd reached out to the chancellor’s office Wednesday expressing concern over Lee’s email and to “find out if it was approved by the chancellor, and if not, what steps they would take to address the situation,” press secretary Paul Payne told The Times. In her statement, García said she was “deeply concerned” about Lee’s 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,” she wrote. “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 a letter written after he was placed on leave, Lee said he had “marginalized other members of our student population” and that he “deeply regret[s] 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,” he continued. “The points outlined in the message were mine alone, and do not represent the views of my colleagues or the CSU.”

García issued another statement Thursday announcing Lee’s decision to retire.

“I thank President Lee for his years of service to the California State University — starting at California State University, Sacramento — and to higher education overall,” she wrote. “I wish him and his family well.”

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