SFSU President Les Wong (photo/courtesy SFSU)
SFSU President Les Wong (photo/courtesy SFSU)

SFSU president Les Wong to retire, ending messy relationship with campus Jews

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

San Francisco State University President Leslie Wong, who has faced criticism of his administration’s response to anti-Semitic incidents at the school over the last years, has announced he is retiring.

Wong, president since 2012, was traveling and unavailable to talk to J., but other figures connected to the university offered comments.

“It’s been a challenging four years for Jewish life on campus,” said Marc Dollinger, a professor of Jewish studies and a frequent critic of Wong’s.

He and other observers of the campus climate at SFSU say that anti-Zionist sentiment at the school has more than once crossed the line into anti-Jewish acts and expression, and that the administration response was tepid.

An independent investigation of a 2016 incident, when protesters shouted down visiting Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat during a Hillel-sponsored appearance, chided SFSU for poor planning and communication and for tolerating similar disruptions in the past. In 2017, a university investigation concluded that Hillel had been “improperly excluded” from a campus civil rights information fair called “Know Your Rights.”

At the time, members of San Francisco Hillel wrote to Wong to charge the university with “institutional anti-Semitism.”

Wong also drew ire when, in an interview with J. in 2017, he hedged when asked directly whether Zionists were welcome on his campus. He later sent out a written public apology for words that caused “anguish and deeply hurt feelings.”

“I was really heartened by President Wong’s apology on his ‘Zionists are not welcome’ comment,” said Dollinger, “and we’re really looking forward to working with the next president.”

Ollie Benn, executive director of San Francisco Hillel, echoed that. In an email to J. after Wong’s announcement he said: “We look forward to this opportunity to build further our relationships with the administration to ensure Jewish students are welcome, included and full participants in campus life.”

SFSU also was the focus of a 2017 federal lawsuit filed on behalf of several students and community members, alleging that a half-century of systemic anti-Semitism at the school created a hostile atmosphere for Jewish students, claims that the judge in the case has said he was inclined to dismiss. A related trial in state court is set for March 2019.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.