Tower Hall at San Jose State University. (Photo/Wikimedia CC0)
Tower Hall at San Jose State University. (Photo/Wikimedia CC0)

San Jose State professor says she was suspended for pro-Palestinian activism

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A San Jose State University professor who has been an active supporter of pro-Palestinian activism on campus has been suspended.

Details about personnel issues are normally confidential, but Sang Hea Kil, a faculty member in the justice studies department at SJSU, posted the suspension letter on her Instagram account on Saturday.

“SJSU suspended me from my job for my Palestine work,” Kil wrote on Instagram. “The fight for academic freedom continues!!!”

The suspension is temporary and with pay.

“The basis of this decision,” the letter said, “is your reported repeated violations — despite notice — of university policies; witnessed and documented reports of unprofessional and exploitative conduct towards students and others including, but not limited to, directing and encouraging students to violate university policies in contradiction to your duties and responsibilities as a faculty member and student advisor,” states the letter dated May 24 and signed by Joanne Write, senior associate vice president of university personnel.

San Jose State spokesperson Michelle Smith McDonald told J. that the university does not comment on personnel matters. Kil did not immediately return a request for comment.

Kil, who has been serving as SJSU’s faculty adviser of Students for Justice in Palestine, has been a visible supporter of the pro-Palestinian protests and tent encampment on campus. Kil was also co-chair of the Palestine, Arab, and Muslim Caucus of the California State University faculty union until last week, when she resigned.

The SJSU suspension letter outlined general reasons for the decision, such as “engaging in harassing and offensive conduct and comments directed towards colleagues individually and as a group, targeting at least one colleague and/or a group of colleagues for engaging in their work duties by publicly posting their picture and/or group description with inflammatory comments and creating a risk of harm to them.”

The university’s list of allegations may be connected to social posts that Kil made earlier this month.

On May 13, SJSU’s administration warned the student encampment that sprinklers would be activating in the area. As reported by student newspaper Spartan Daily, protesters were given about  two hours notice. Students said the university’s automatic system could have been disabled but was not.

Kil interpreted the university’s actions as harassment, posting a photo of SJSU President Cynthia Teniente-Matson on Instagram and writing that the administrator “wants to turn on the sprinklers on the mostly Muslim student campers at 10.30pm.” The next day, on May 14, Kil posted another photo, this time of director of student involvement Jon Tucker, and blamed him for turning on the sprinklers. “The optics of using water as a weapon against students protesting a genocide is hideous!” Kil wrote.

According to the Spartan Daily, students put buckets and jugs over the sprinklers to avoid getting wet.

Kil also wrote on Instagram she had been contacted by administrators for possibly violating “time, place and manner” regulations, which governs how protests can be held on campus.

Separately, on May 8, Kil posted an earlier letter informing her that an outside investigator was looking into a Feb. 19 incident when she had allegedly “engaged in behavior that disrupted the university’s business operations and encouraged students to do the same.”

That investigation stems from chaos surrounding a visiting Jewish professor who needed police protection to deliver a talk at SJSU. Jeffrey Blutinger, director of Jewish studies at Cal State Long Beach, was there to speak about the two-state solution and peace options.

Student protesters filled the hallways and chanted outside the room where he was speaking. During a confrontation in the hallway, history professor Jonathan Roth began recording a protester with his phone. The protester put her hand directly in front of the phone. Roth then pushed the protester’s hand down. A scuffle ensued, and police intervened. The university is investigating Roth for his alleged role in the altercation. The status of that investigation is unclear.

Campus police ended Blutinger’s talk early and escorted him out.

Following that February incident, Kil told J. that the students who disrupted the lecture were protesting Blutinger for his “problematic” views on Israel. She said the students wanted to “express their desire to stop the genocide that’s happening in Palestine.”

The May 24 suspension letter to Kil states that the suspension is for 60 days or until there is formal disciplinary action. In the meantime, Kil was required to turn in her office keys.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

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