California University President Retires After Agreeing to Boycott Israel

California University President Retires After Agreeing to Boycott Israel

A pro-Palestinian encampment at the University of California–Irvine on May 15, 2024. (Courtesy of Alice Sun)

Bill Pan

Bill Pan

5/18/2024

Updated: 5/21/2024

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The embattled president of California’s Sonoma State University has retired just days after making controversial concessions to end pro-Palestinian encampment on his campus.
The widely criticized deal, which Sonoma State University President Ming-Tung “Mike” Lee said was his unilateral decision, immediately drew rebuke from California State University system leaders, who accused him of “insubordination” and placed him on leave.
In an update on May 17, California State University Chancellor Mildred Garcia said Mr. Lee will not be returning to the post.
“President Ming-Tung (Mike) Lee has informed me of his decision to retire from his role at Sonoma State University. I thank President Lee for his years of service to the California State University—starting at California State University, Sacramento—and to higher education over all. I wish him and his family well,” Ms. Garcia said.
Mr. Lee’s duties will be taken over in the interim by Nathan Evans, a vice chancellor in Ms. García’s administration.
“I will continue to work with Acting President Nathan Evans and our Board of Trustees leadership during this transitional period,” Ms. Garcia said, noting that there will be more information in the coming days.
This marks the second time Mr. Lee has retired after spending nearly three decades in the Cal State system. Born in Taiwan, he served as Sacramento State’s chief financial officer as well as vice president for administration and business affairs before retiring in 2018.
In 2022, Mr. Lee came out of retirement to replace former Sonoma State University President Judy Sakaki, who resigned amid a controversy in which her husband was accused of sexually harassing university employees. Mr Lee’s position was made permanent in May 2023.
It’s not clear whether the deals struck with protesters will be honored following Mr. Lee’s departure. The Epoch Times reached out to the Cal State system for further comments but did not receive a reply by press time.
The protesters, meanwhile, said they are “saddened” and “disturbed” by the news.
“We find it disturbing that a university president in the CSU should be punished so swiftly and egregiously for peacefully negotiating with students,” the encampment’s organizer, Sonoma State University Students for Palestine, wrote on Instagram. “We find it striking and problematic that this overreaction is enacted upon one of the only Asian CSU presidents during Asian American Heritage Month.
“The bottom line is: students have held up their end of the deal that was made, and we demand that the terms of the agreement as negotiated, be upheld.”

The Concessions

In a May 14 email to students and faculty, Mr. Lee revealed details of the terms he brokered with protesters in exchange for ending their encampment on the campus lawn, which had persisted since April 26.
Among the “key points of agreement” he described was for the university to initiate an “academic boycott” of Israel, in which any study abroad programs, faculty exchanges, or other formal collaborations sponsored by Israeli state academic and research institutions would be terminated.
Although Sonoma State currently lacks any ties with Israel, the university would work with a local chapter of the activist group Students for Justice in Palestine to form an advisory council aimed at preventing such partnerships in the future, according to the message.
This advisory council, made up of “members of the encampment, faculty, staff, administrators, Palestinian alumni and other interested students,” would also be tasked with reviewing the school’s contracts and investment to identify potential ties to Israel. After the review, the council members and university administrators would “meet with proper officials to determine a course of action leading to divestment strategies that include seeking ethical alternatives.”
As part of the deal, the occupants of the pro-Palestinian encampment packed away their tents and fully vacated the site on May 15.

Backlash from Lawmakers

Mr. Lee’s decision was met with widespread backlash, including from California’s delegation to the U.S. Congress.
“This is the most despicable university response yet,” Rep. Kevin Kiley (R-Calif.) wrote on social media platform X. “Sonoma State in California has not only agreed to the anti-Semitic demands of the encampment, but has converted the encampment into a permanent governing council.”
State Sen. Scott Wiener, a Democrat who co-chairs the California Legislature’s Jewish Caucus, also condemned Mr. Lee’s decision to endorse the anti-Israel “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS)” movement.
“Yesterday the President of Sonoma State University aligned the campus with BDS, a movement whose goal is the destruction of Israel, home to [7 million] Jews,” Mr. Wiener wrote on X on May 15. “Several other UC & CSU campuses are doing this more subtly. Sonoma State simply said the quiet part out loud. The mask is off.”
Several California institutions, including Sacramento State University and the Universities of California (UC) at Riverside and Berkeley, had agreed to look at divestment demands. However, none have gone as far as to offer protesters roles in the institution’s decision-making process.
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Bill Pan

Bill Pan

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Bill Pan is an Epoch Times reporter covering education issues and New York news.

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