Sonoma State president retires after being placed on leave for supporting anti-Israel boycott

The president of Sonoma State University has retired from his role after being placed on leave for issuing a controversial campuswide message on the Israel-Hamas war.

California State University Chancellor Mildred Garcia said in a statement Thursday that President Ming Tung “Mike” Lee informed her of his decision to retire. Garcia placed Lee on leave for “insubordination” on Wednesday, one day after he released a message in support of a boycott against Israeli universities and said that the university would pursue “divestment strategies.” Garcia said Lee did not receive approval for the message.

In a letter to the community, Lee apologized for the “unintended consequences of my actions” and acknowledged that his message had not been reviewed by CSU officials.

“I want to be clear: The message was drafted and sent without the approval of, or consultation with, the Chancellor or other system leaders. The points outlined in the message were mine alone, and do not represent the views of my colleagues or the CSU,” Lee wrote.

Amy Bentley-Smith, Cal State director of strategic communications and public affairs, said "there is no written policy" when it comes to approval from the chancellor's office over campus leadership's communications related to the Israel-Hamas conflict.

"The chancellor and presidents have been in constant communication during protest activities on campuses with the intent that decisions at the university level are made in consultation with the chancellor's office and align not only with shared university values and mission, but with applicable CSU system policies, and state and federal laws," Bentley-Smith said.

While the university system’s 23 campus presidents report to the chancellor, they are considered the executive officers of their respective campuses and have some autonomy over campus decisions.

Read more: Sonoma State president on leave for 'insubordination' after supporting anti-Israel boycott, divestment

Also Friday, Rep. Kevin Kiley (R-Rocklin) sent a letter to Garcia and University of California President Michael V. Drake, calling for accountability when a campus leader appeals to “antisemitic demands of encampments.”

“There is an urgent need for system-wide action in both the UC and CSU systems to restore order on campus, stop the adoption of [Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions] policies, and, where appropriate, appoint new campus leadership,” wrote Kiley, who previously called on Lee to resign.

Other state lawmakers had raised concerns over Lee’s message. Sen. Bill Dodd’s (D-Napa) office reached out to the chancellor’s office Wednesday to ask if Garcia had approved the message, press secretary Paul Payne told The Times.

Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) also expressed opposition.

“This is horrific and wrong,” Wiener told KRON-4 this week.

The chancellor said she will continue to work with acting President Nathan Evans and the Board of Trustees during this “transitional period.” In a statement to the Sonoma State community, Evans said that Lee’s retirement will not overshadow Saturday’s commencement activities.

“We will create spaces and places to process President Lee’s retirement and other recent developments as a community in the coming days and weeks. For now, I encourage all of us to focus on our graduates and their supporters,” Evans said.

Lee worked at Sacramento State for 28 years. He came out of a brief retirement in 2022 to become Sonoma State’s president after Judy Sakaki resigned amid outcry over sexual harassment and retaliation allegations against her and her husband.

Times staff writer Jaweed Kaleem contributed to this report.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.