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CAIR-SFBA Decries Termination of Sonoma State University President Mike Lee

CAIR-SFBA Decries Termination of Sonoma State University President Mike Lee for Supporting Pro-Palestinian Protest Demands
CAIR-SFBA Decries Termination of Sonoma State University President Mike Lee for Supporting Pro-Palestinian Protest Demands
May 17, 2024 - The San Francisco Bay Area office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-SFBA), the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, today strongly denounced the termination of Sonoma State University (SSU) President Mike Lee. His removal comes in the wake of his courageous decision to meet with and accept the demands of SSU students advocating on behalf of Palestinians in Gaza, where more than 35,000 have been killed in Israel’s seven-month genocide.

On Tuesday evening, President Lee issued a campus-wide email outlining the agreement reached with students and community members who had been peacefully protesting on SSU’s Person Lawn since April 26. The agreement addressed five key demands:

* Support for a ceasefire in Gaza
* University transparency regarding vendor contracts
* Development of divestment strategies
* Implementation of an academic boycott of Israeli state institutions
* Creation of a Palestine Studies program

Despite the positive reception of these measures by the student body and the broader community who support Palestinian human rights, Lee was placed on administrative leave by California State University Chancellor Mildred Garcia the next day, citing insubordination. This followed an immense pressure campaign by apparent pro-genocide groups including the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) and apparent pro-genocide legislators including State Senator Scott Wiener and Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel. Despite the pro-Palestine advocacy of Jewish Voice for Peace and other Jewish advocates in the region, including their support for the encampment, the JCRC, Sen. Wiener, and Asm. Gabriel chose to smear President Lee with false allegations of anti-Semitism.

Garcia’s decision has now culminated in his termination in the guise of an abrupt retirement, a move that has sparked outrage and concern about academic freedom and the suppression of pro-Palestinian activism.

Jewish Voice for Peace-Sonoma County said in a statement:

“We are saddened to hear of the untimely retirement of Sonoma State University President Mike Lee. We find it disturbing that a university president in the CSU should be punished so swiftly and egregiously for peacefully negotiating with students who demand an end to their school’s complicity with a genocidal apartheid regime.

“Particularly, when other presidents in the CSU have not been punished for unleashing violence on and suspensions of students protesting peacefully. Furthermore, we find it striking and problematic that this overreaction is enacted upon one of the only Asian CSU presidents during Asian American Heritage Month. We see this as undermining his authority to act within the interests of the university in which he was elected to lead.

“The struggle for Palestine shines a spotlight on the continued racism and harm caused by the entrenchment of CSU in the Zionist project. 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, as they were made by someone with full authority to make that decision.”

By terminating Lee, Garcia has seemingly weaponized the system on a technicality to oust him and make an example of him for other chancellors in the California Higher Education system. This undemocratic action creates a culture of fear and goes against the will of the students who attend the university.

In a statement CAIR-SFBA Executive Director Zahra Billoo said:

“President Mike Lee’s termination is a deeply troubling development that underscores the pervasive climate of intolerance and suppression faced by those who dare to advocate for Palestinian rights. His willingness to engage with student activists and make meaningful changes reflects the true spirit of academic leadership and commitment to social justice.

“By succumbing to external pressures and penalizing President Lee for his principled stance, the California State University system is sending a chilling message to educators and activists alike: that advocating for Palestinian rights and striving for an inclusive and just campus environment can lead to severe repercussions.

“These SSU students and the thousands of others like them on campuses across the country who are advocating for divestment from a genocidal government are on the right side of history.”

President Lee’s termination comes two days after CAIR published new analysis titled “’Hostile:’ How Universities Target Anti-Genocide Protesters While Enabling Anti-Palestinian Racism and Islamophobia.” The report documents many instances where university administrators have “canceled and censored voices calling for Palestinian human rights, introduced new university policies with the seeming intent of suppressing free speech, and even unleashed law enforcement on their own students. In some instances, universities have even sought to suppress the democratic voice of their own student body, condemning or even shutting down resolutions calling for divestment.”

CAIR-SFBA stands in solidarity with President Lee, the students, and all those who are working towards dignity and justice for Palestinians. We urge the broader community to continue supporting academic freedom and the rights of individuals to advocate for human rights without fear of retaliation.

CAIR-SFBA is an office of CAIR, America’s largest Muslim civil liberties and advocacy organization. Its mission is to enhance understanding of Islam, protect civil rights, promote justice, and empower American Muslims.
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