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Sonoma State University's Deal With Student Protesters in Limbo After President's Removal

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Two women walk past a Palestinian flag hanging from a tree outdoors.
Students walk past a Palestinian flag displayed at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park on Monday, April 29, 2024. Sonoma State students set up a tent encampment on Friday. Colleges across the nation have set up tent encampments to show support and solidarity for Palestine. (Gina Castro/KQED)

Updated 8:20 a.m. Friday

A deal reached between Sonoma State University and pro-Palestinian student protesters is in limbo after the campus president was placed on administrative leave over his letter announcing the agreement, then retired.

In his Tuesday letter, President Mike Lee agreed to disclose where the university foundation invests its money and to review all investments and vendor contracts for possible areas of divestment – concessions in line with deals also reached this week at San Francisco State University and UC Berkeley, reflecting two of the largest demands made by student protesters across the country.

However, Lee went further, agreeing not to pursue formal collaborations with Israeli state-affiliated academic and research institutions, including study abroad programs or faculty exchanges.

“Both SSU Students for Justice in Palestine and I, President Mike Lee, oppose and condemn all acts of genocide, ethnic cleansing, racism, antisemitism and other activities that violate fundamental human rights,” Lee wrote later in the letter. “And thus, I call for a cease-fire so that a process for permanent, peaceful resolution can be established.”


Less than a day after Lee announced the deal, CSU Chancellor Mildred García said Wednesday that he was on administrative leave, adding that Lee’s message had been sent without the appropriate approvals.

“I want to acknowledge how deeply concerned I am about the impact the statement has had on the Sonoma State community,” García wrote. “And how challenging and painful it will be for many of our students and community members to see and read.”

Then, late Thursday, García announced that Lee had informed her of his decision to retire.

Pushback to Lee’s announcement of the agreement with protesters came quickly.

In a Wednesday tweet, state Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), co-chair of the California Legislative Jewish Caucus, condemned the deal.

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“Yesterday the President of Sonoma State University aligned the campus with BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions], a movement whose goal is the destruction of Israel, home to 7M Jews,” Wiener wrote.

“It’s one thing to disagree with the policies of the government but to say that we can’t have professors, we can’t have students from Israel is really problematic,” said Tyler Gregory, CEO of the Jewish Community Relations Council Bay Area. “To ban that from happening is both deeply offensive and against civil rights.”

Before the news of Lee’s retirement, he also issued an apology.

“In my attempt to find agreement with one group of students, I marginalized other members of our student population and community,” he said.

Lee echoed the chancellor’s assertion that he acted alone, saying, “The points outlined in the message were mine alone and do not represent the views of my colleagues or the CSU.”

A person holds a sign that reads "Save All the Kids in Gaza" with multicolored lettering in front of tents and trees outdoors.
Sonoma State student Race Simmons puts a sign up on the grass at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park on Monday, April 29, 2024. Sonoma State students set up a tent encampment on Friday. Colleges across the nation have set up tent encampments to show support and solidarity for Palestine. (Gina Castro/KQED)

Student organizers had initially celebrated the deal, including sharing Lee’s first letter on Instagram with the caption “Brick by brick, wall by wall!”

Early comments to the post expressed pride in the accomplishments of student collective action, but following Lee’s indefinite dismissal, some commenters began asking what the news meant for the deal and the movement.

Student organizers did not respond to a request for comment, but in a following post, they wrote, “We Choose ‘Insubordination’ We know our history. We know what happened when folks ‘just followed orders.’”

University spokesperson Jeffery Keating told KQED that student protesters cleared their encampment on Wednesday, which was established on April 26, in accordance with the deal they made with Lee. However, Keating did not say what Lee’s fate meant in the terms of his agreement.

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