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CSU Punishes University President for Conceding to Student Protesters’ Demands

The California State University system cited “insubordination” as the reason for the harsh punishment.

Students for Justice in Palestine rally with speeches, signs and demands at Cal State LA in Los Angeles on Wednesday, May 1, 2024.

Leaders of the California State University (CSU) system placed Sonoma State University President Mike Lee on administrative leave over supposed “insubordination” after Lee made his university the first in the country to agree to an academic boycott of Israel and said he would give students input on divesting from Israel following student protests.

In a statement on Wednesday, CSU Chancellor Mildred García cited “insubordination” and unspecified “consequences” that Lee’s decision brought on the system. “Sonoma State University President Mike Lee sent a campuswide message concerning an agreement with campus protesters. That message was sent without the appropriate approvals,” García said.

On Tuesday, 18 days into their Gaza solidarity encampment at Sonoma State, pro-Palestine student protesters scored a win when Lee sent students a letter saying that he would be meeting some of the encampment protest’s demands.

One of his major concessions was a pledge that Sonoma State would boycott Israeli academic and research institutions, making it the first university in the U.S. to make such a promise amid current protests. The university does not currently have faculty or student exchange agreements with Israel, and the letter vowed that Sonoma State would not pursue such programs in the future, nor would it engage in any other collaborations with Israeli institutions.

Further, Lee agreed to form a student committee involving the campus branch of Students for Justice in Palestine that would take part in a “review” of investments that could involve Israel and then meet with proper officials to determine a course of action — a step that still falls far from a pledge to divest. He also agreed to introduce more curriculum on Palestinian culture and history, and released a statement calling for a ceasefire in Gaza “so that a process for permanent, peaceful resolution can be established.”

CSU’s swift suspension of Lee is one of the harshest punishments handed out to a university administrator for agreeing to pro-Palestine students’ demands.

Lee sent a follow up message on Wednesday that echoed some of the language used in García’s statement. “In my attempt to find agreement with one group of students, I marginalized other members of our student population and community,” Lee said. “I realize the harm that this has caused, and I take full ownership of it. I deeply regret the unintended consequences of my actions.”

The punishment is the latest chilling action that institutions have taken against their own employees and students who show anything but deference to Israel, showing that even those in positions of some power are not immune from crackdowns on pro-Palestine sentiment. In recent weeks, universities across the country have employed extreme police brutality to subjugate student protesters, suspending many students speaking out against Israel’s genocide and having nearly 3,000 students arrested.