San José State professor suspended over pro-Palestinian work

People walk on the campus of San Jose State University in San Jose, Calif.
San José State University campus in San José. A San José State University professor serving as a liaison for students demonstrating against the Israel-Hamas war was placed on a 60-day administrative leave amid an investigation into misconduct, according to a suspension letter. (Paul Sakuma / Associated Press)

A San José State University professor serving as a liaison for students demonstrating against the Israel-Hamas war was placed on a 60-day administrative leave amid an investigation into misconduct, according to a suspension letter.

The university accused Sang Hea Kil, professor of justice studies, of violating her duty and responsibility as a faculty member by “directing and encouraging students” to violate university policies that regulate free speech on campus and promote diversity and equal opportunity.

Officials also accused Kil of “engaging in harassing and offensive conduct and comments directed towards colleagues,” including posting photos publicly of one or more of them with what they deemed to be “inflammatory comments and creating a risk of harm on them,” according to the letter reviewed by The Times.

In a written statement and phone interview, Kil denied the university’s allegations.

“I believe that my temporary suspension is part of an academic freedom suppression campaign against me,” she said. “I have been an outspoken critic of the genocide in Gaza as well as an advocate for faculty rights as a California Faculty Assn. union member and leader.”

Kil is the second professor at the university to be suspended. In February, history professor Jonathan Roth was placed on administrative leave after a video showed him grabbing and twisting the arm of a pro-Palestinian student.

Michelle McDonald, spokeswoman for the university, said in an email that San José State does not comment on personnel matters.

The suspension comes as academic workers across UC campuses have gone on strike over what they say are free speech rights violations that occurred when university leaders called on police to remove pro-Palestinian encampments. The workers want amnesty for academic employees and students facing disciplinary action or arrest due to participation in protests.

A day after Kil was suspended, the CSU Student Divestment Coalition, the group demanding that the system's schools divest from firms that do business with Israel, launched a social media campaign and called on the San José State's president to drop disciplinary charges against Kil.

The professor said problems with the university began after Roth’s suspension. Kil, who had been assigned as an advisor for the university’s Students for Justice in Palestine group and was recently serving as a liaison between the group and administrators, said she got a letter dated April 25 stating she was under investigation.

In the letter, reviewed by The Times, officials claimed that on Feb. 19 she took part in a protest held inside Sweeney Hall and had “engaged in behavior that disrupted the university’s business operations and encouraged students to do the same.”

Two weeks later, she received an email from Mari Fuentes-Martin, interim vice president for student affairs, accusing Kil of directing students at a May 8 rally to ignore university policies and march through the university’s recreation center. The email also accused Kil of directing students to set up an encampment on the lawn.

“That never happened,” she said. “I felt very comfortable emailing her back and saying that I categorically deny all these allegations because they weren’t based on any evidence or fact.”

“There were so many witnesses to what I said and the fact that the email she sent me doesn’t align with what actually occurred was disturbing to me,” she added. “It made me think that they were going to build an academic suppression against me.”

At the core of the university’s allegations is that Kil violated the university’s “Freedom of Expression and Time, Place and Manner” policy, which imposes some limitations on free speech events held on the university’s property. Kil said officials don’t enforce the policy equally.

“If you have sporting events on campus and people are using noisemakers or screaming at the top of their lungs, the time, place and manner is never applied,” she said. “But if you have students protesting against a war, against genocide, increases of tuition, then suddenly, time, place and manner is applied.”

Kil believes she’s being targeted by the university because she’s been vocal on other issues. She was part of a coalition of student groups and faculty members who sought to hold administrators accountable for failing to properly investigate allegations of sexual misconduct against a former head athletic trainer who was accused of groping female student athletes.

The university paid $1.6 million as part of a settlement with the Department of Justice in that case in 2021.

Last Friday, Kil said she received another letter that stated San José State’s initial investigation into alleged misconduct would be amended to include the May 8 incident. That same day, she was placed on paid administrative leave for 60 days.

Kil said she’s been cut off from students because of the suspension. She also worries if she’ll be able to teach summer courses this year, which she said she depends on for extra money to get by. A grant she won is also now in limbo.

“I Just want my students to know that I don’t want them to worry about me,” she said. “I want them to protect their moral compass and to have their moral compass keep pointing north and that I still support them even though I can't talk to them in their fight against this genocide.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.