a headshot image of wong is superimposed over an entrance to campus
San Francisco State University campus; S.F. State President Les Wong

Les Wong exit interview: wishes he had been ‘more prepared’

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Leslie Wong says he has not yet decided what he’ll do after retiring as president of San Francisco State University next July. Maybe he’ll teach, or do some writing, or just enjoy doting on his eight grandchildren.

Or maybe, he says, he’ll give lectures on how college administrators should handle campus tensions. If so, Wong, 68, says he’ll use his own mistakes in dealing with Jewish and Muslim students at SFSU as examples of what errors to avoid.

Wong, who who announced Oct. 1 he will retire at the end of the current academic year, has been at the center of several controversial incidents involving the school’s Jewish and Muslim communities in the past few years. He leaves behind a campus where there are persistent accusations of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

Wong says he wasn’t properly prepared to handle tensions between the two groups when he took over as president in 2012.

“Looking back, I would have studied more and been more prepared,” he told J. “The sentiments run deep, there are unique cultural issues, identity issues, and I should have been much more familiar with the questions, not necessarily the answers.”

Some Jewish students and professors say the school administration was not supportive enough when anti-Zionists shouted down Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat during a campus visit in April 2016, or when the school’s Hillel chapter was excluded from a social justice forum on campus.

Muslim campus leaders say Wong did not speak out strongly enough when a non-campus Jewish group put up posters at SFSU attacking Palestinian students and teachers, and that he did not follow through on promises to fully fund the Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Studies (AMED) program at the school.

An example of Wong being faulted by both sides occurred when Jewish groups felt he equivocated in the spring of 2017 when asked directly whether Zionists were welcome on the SFSU campus. “That’s one of those categorical statements I can’t get close to,” he told J. at the time. “I take each on their own merits. Am I comfortable opening up the gates to everyone? Gosh, of course not. I’m not the kind of guy who gets into absolutes like that.” He later apologized to Jewish students in a campus-wide email, saying: “Let me be clear: Zionists are welcome on our campus.”

But Hillel students said the apology didn’t go far enough. And Rabab Abdulhadi, an SFSU professor and director of the AMED program, called Wong’s apology “a declaration of war against Arabs, Muslims, Palestinians and all those who are committed to an indivisible sense of social justice on and off campus.”

“There are times I wish I had gone to diplomat school,” Wong said last week in an interview with J. in his campus office. “I bless both Palestinian and Jewish students. They want to be engaged in big issues. If they need to chew at me to get at that idea, go ahead and chew.”

Several Jewish students were among those who sued the school last year — naming Wong, Abdulhadi and others as defendants — claiming they were among the victims of decades of anti-Semitism on campus.

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A federal judge said this August he was inclined to dismiss the suit, but he has not yet issued a formal ruling in the case. Some of the same students also have filed a state lawsuit against the school.

Wong, whose mother is of Mexican descent and whose father is a Chinese American, grew up in East Oakland and graduated from Bishop O’Dowd High School, a Catholic college-prep school in Oakland, according to a report in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2012 when he was named president of SFSU.

Wong said SFSU this month began surveying students, professors and other campus workers to gauge the atmosphere at the 30,000-student school.

“We can be better at welcoming Jews and I think we are getting better,” he said.

“We really have undergone some changes in student affairs. We’re now going to add more advisers that are culturally trained in building an infrastructure that supports an awareness of our differences.”

Ollie Benn, executive director of San Francisco Hillel, said he was looking forward to the next school president dealing with SFSU’s “serious unresolved challenges.”

“We want someone who allows Jewish identity not to be defined by others. In my view, it’s the university’s moral obligation to do everything in its power to ensure that all students feel safe, welcome and included,” Benn said. “San Francisco State has maybe allowed some activism to get in the way of education.”

Abdulhadi said she hopes the next president will “seriously work on ending Islamophobia on campus” and give more support to the AMED program.

Wong said he’d advise his successor to “read and talk to folks, and make sure you connect with the community, whoever they might be.”

He added: “Sometimes when you’re facing difficult times, it’s easy to get in this room and shut the door, when you should be doing the opposite, talking with rabbis, with community leaders. Be prepared to do that. I think I would have managed my time in the community differently.”

Wong went on a Jewish Community Relations Council trip to Israel shortly after being installed as SFSU’s president, and said he did a lot of reading about Israel before the journey. He wishes he had done more reading on Jewish-Muslim relations before taking the president’s job.

“My mantra to myself became to focus on the mission of the university,” he said.

“I should have been more understanding of a person’s cultural identity as it matches up to the school’s cultural identity.”

Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster z"l was J.'s senior writer from 2016-2019.