California university president put on leave for ‘insubordination’ after meeting Gaza protesters' demands

California State University placed Sonoma State campus President Mike Lee on leave Wednesday after he agreed to protesters' demands to involve them in university decision-making and pursue divestment from Israel.

Lee sent a campus-wide memo Tuesday indicating that he had made several concessions to occupants of a pro-Palestinian encampment on campus. The memo was sent “without the appropriate approvals,” CSU Chancellor Mildred García said in a statement, adding that she and the 23-campus CSU system’s board are “actively reviewing the matter.”

“For now, because of this insubordination and the consequences it has brought upon the system, President Lee has been placed on administrative leave,” García said.

The punishment marks perhaps the harshest disciplinary action against a campus chancellor or president in California over the handling of protests of the war in Gaza. It also underscores an unwillingness to divest from Israeli weapons manufacturers — as pro-Palestinian protesters across the country have increasingly demanded the last few months — among leaders of the CSU system and its sister University of California system.

California universities including UC Riverside, UC Berkeley and Sacramento State have agreed to study divestment like some East Coast universities, but none have gone as far as Lee.

Lee told the campus that he would initiate an academic boycott of Israel, in which links to study abroad programs in the country would be removed from university pamphlets, among other measures. He also agreed to work with a local chapter of the activist group Students for Justice in Palestine to form an advisory council on some decisions.

Lee further pledged to review the school's contracts and a campus-specific investment fund called the Sonoma State Foundation for ties to Israel "to determine a course of action leading to divestment strategies that include seeking ethical alternatives."

“In my attempt to find agreement with one group of students, I marginalized other members of our student population and community,” Lee wrote in a follow-up message to members of the campus Wednesday. “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 did not immediately return a request for comment.

His decision to engage with protesters had quickly drawn backlash in the 24 hours since he announced the deal with demonstrators, which included them dismantling their encampment. California Legislative Jewish Caucus Co-Chair Scott Wiener, a Democrat, condemned Lee’s concessions to the “Boycott, Divest and Sanction” movement in scathing terms.

“Yesterday the President of Sonoma State University aligned the campus with BDS, a movement whose goal is the destruction of Israel, home to 7M Jews,” Wiener wrote on X Wednesday. “Several other UC & CSU campuses are doing this more subtly. Sonoma State simply said the quiet part out loud. The mask is off.”

Wiener and fellow Caucus Co-Chair Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel later issued a statement praising the decision to place Lee on leave, saying he had been "unfit to lead one of our great state institutions."

Lee was first named president of the campus in Northern California’s Wine Country in the fall of 2022. He’ll be replaced in the interim by Nathan Evans, a vice chancellor in García’s administration.

“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,” said García, who took over as chancellor at the beginning of the academic year. “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.”