Last week’s visit by Iran’s president to Columbia University symbolized to many the openness of American higher education to hearing controversial ideas and individuals. An incident coming to light at the University of St. Thomas, in Minnesota, illustrates that some speakers are denied campus platforms. In this case, the would-be speaker isn’t a Holocaust denier. Nor does he run a government that routinely denies basic civil rights to scholars, journalists or gay people.
The speaker barred at St. Thomas won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who won the prize for his nonviolent opposition to South Africa’s apartheid regime, was deemed unworthy of appearing at St. Thomas because of comments he made criticizing Israel -- comments the university says were “hurtful” to some Jewish people. Further, the university demoted the director of the program that invited Tutu after she wrote a letter to him and others complaining about the revocation of the invitation. (She retains a tenured faculty job.)
While the incident happened several months ago, it has only just become public, when it was reported by City Pages, the alt-weekly in Minneapolis-St. Paul. The revoked invitation has some faculty members at the university seething.
“There isn’t any academic freedom here when this happens,” said Marv Davidov, an adjunct faculty member who has taught courses about nonviolence for 15 years at the university. “This is cowardice.”
Tutu was invited to the university through a program called PeaceJam International, which organizes conferences for high school students on issues related to peace. While the program is not officially a part of St. Thomas, many faculty members --- especially in the Justice and Peace Studies Program -- are involved in it, and major speakers sometimes appear on the campus, reaching those at the university in addition to the high schoolers in the program. Tutu, invited through the Justice and Peace Studies Program, was to talk at St. Thomas about issues of peace and nonviolence and there was no expectation that his talk would focus on the Middle East.
Doug Hennes, vice president for university and government relations at St. Thomas, said that when administrators were informed of the invitation, they did some research about Tutu, and found that some of his comments had been controversial. Then, the university consulted with some Jewish leaders, and concluded that Tutu had made remarks that had been “hurtful” to Jewish leaders.
"We had heard some criticism of him in the past that he had said things some people judged to be anti-Semitic. We talked to the Jewish Community Relations Council. We know a number of other people in the Jewish community, and they said that some of the things he said had been hurtful and there was a feeling -- and this isn't among all Jews -- that he had said things that were hurtful to them,” Hennes said.
“We never made a judgment that he is anti-Semitic. We have not made that judgment. We have only been told by members of the Jewish community that his words have been hurtful,” Hennes said. He stressed that the university sought out the views of Jewish leaders, and that the revocation of the invitation was a university decision, and not one that was sought by anyone outside St. Thomas.
"We make decisions every day on a regular basis on whether to invite people to campus,” Hennes said. Asked if disqualifying people from speaking for being “hurtful” might block many speakers, he said, “That’s not the case at all. We have speakers on a wide variety of issues and interests, including sensitive issues within the Catholic church.” (St. Thomas is a Roman Catholic university.)
“I don’t think this squelches academic freedom,” he said. “We made one decision about an individual.”
The individual in question won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his work promoting equality in South Africa through nonviolent means. While St. Thomas doesn't want him to speak, he has been honored by numerous American colleges with honorary degrees.
The comments by Tutu that appear to have set off scrutiny of the invitation came in a 2002 speech in Boston about Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. The Zionist Organization of America has criticized the speech and said that in it, Tutu campared Israel to Hitler. But a transcript of the speech raises questions about that interpretation. In the transcript, published by one of the groups that sponsored the lecture, Tutu is harshly critical of Israel’s government and of the pro-Israel lobby in the United States and expresses regret that some Jews in Israel and elsewhere do not identify with the oppression of Palestinians. But Tutu also explicitly talks about Israel’s right to exist within secure borders.
The transcript released by Sabeel, a Palestinian ecumenical group, does not show a direct comparison between Israel and Hitler. The mention of Hitler in the speech comes during a section in which Tutu urged the audience not to assume that the status quo lasts forever, and in which he urged those listening to challenge to “Jewish lobby” in the United States. “People are scared in this country [U.S.], to say wrong is wrong because the Jewish lobby is powerful, very powerful. Well, so what? This is God‘s world. For goodness sake, this is God‘s world. We live in a moral universe. The apartheid government was very powerful, but today it no longer exists. Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Pinochet, Milosevic, and Idi Amin were all powerful, but in the end, they bit the dust.”
Davidov, the adjunct at St. Thomas, said he knew that some people were offended by such comments, but he rejected the idea that all Jews were offended. He noted that he is Jewish, and agrees with Tutu’s remarks and frequently criticizes Israel himself.
Cris Toffolo, an associate professor of political science and until recently director of the Justice and Peace Studies Program, questioned the idea that anyone who makes hurtful comments should be barred from speaking. “There are some things in the world that are just hard to talk about, but when you get past the hurt, you can get to the real issues, and explore those in a way that could move the world to a more just place,” she said.
Toffolo said she believed in the guidelines on controversial speakers distributed by the American Association of University Professors, an approach that says that controversy should never justify keeping away a speaker.
She said that even if some find Tutu’s ideas offensive, that’s no reason to keep him from being heard. Exposing students to controversy, she said, doesn’t endorse any particular point of view. For example, her introductory political theory course, she assigns students to read an excerpt from Mein Kampf. Well aware that Hilter’s manifesto may be hurtful to Jews and others in the course, Toffolo said she has asked students how they feel about the assignment, and she’s been pleased that students find it valuable -- and understand why the reading is included.
“They understand that this was part of the debate at that time and we need to know about it,” Toffolo said. “It’s only by confronting all of the realities that we can come to a deeper understanding of any period,” she said.
Toffolo said that she was informed that she was losing the directorship of the program she led, and received a negative evaluation, right after she spoke out against rescinding the Tutu invitation. She said that administrators were very clear with her about the relationship between their decision on her leadership of the program, and the invitation. (Hennes, the St. Thomas vice president, confirmed that Toffolo was removed as chair shortly after she defended the Tutu invitation, but he declined to say why she was removed, citing the confidentiality of personnel decisions.)
“It’s outrageous and it infringes on my academic freedom,” said Toffolo of the university’s decision to strip her of the program director’s position.
While Toffolo’s work does not focus on the Middle East, she said that she saw what happened to her as part of a pattern in which professors who are critics of Israel face difficulty with their careers. “This case is interesting because there are so many faculty members running afoul because of their views on Israeli policy in the occupied territories or U.S. foreign policy in terms of Israel,” she said. “We need to be able to have serious discussions of these issues.”