St. Thomas Agrees to Invite Tutu

Facing opposition from the ADL, a prominent poet's refusal to appear on campus, and student and faculty anger, university changes its mind. Did it change enough?
October 11, 2007

Facing widespread condemnation for its decision to block a speaking invitation to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the University of St. Thomas announced Wednesday that he would be welcome on the campus after all. While many on the campus said that they were pleased with the reversal, some also questioned whether the university was doing enough to undo damage from the incident.

"I have wrestled with what is the right thing to do in this situation, and I have concluded that I made the wrong decision earlier this year not to invite the archbishop. Although well-intentioned, I did not have all of the facts and points of view, but now I do," wrote the Rev. Dennis Dease, president of St. Thomas, in a letter announcing that he hoped Tutu would appear. Tutu had been invited to speak at 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.

St. Thomas officials blocked Tutu's appearance -- prompting PeaceJam to plan to move his talk to nearby Metropolitan State University, also in St. Paul, Minn. -- because, officials of St. Thomas said, some of his past comments about Israel had been "hurtful" to some Jews. That analysis infuriated many professors, students and others, who said that applying a standard of "hurtful" as grounds for blocking a campus appearance could empty colleges of controversial speakers. And many questioned why this standard should be applied now. How could St. Thomas have two years ago welcomed Ann Coulter -- known for her sharp barbs against all with whom she disagrees -- and deny access to a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the struggle against apartheid?

Even the position that the university was trying to be respectful to Jews unraveled almost from the start. While no one denies that Tutu has been harshly critical of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians, he has also consistently affirmed Israel's right to exist and some of the statements cited against him have been questioned. On Tuesday, the Anti-Defamation League -- arguably the most prominent voice in the United States against anti-Semitism -- issued a statement calling for Tutu to be allowed to speak.

"While Archbishop Tutu is not a friend of Israel, we do not believe he is an anti-Semite," said a letter to Father Dease from Abraham H. Foxman, director of the ADL. "As you rightly point out in your letter, his words have often stung the Jewish community. However, while he may at times have crossed the line, we believe that he should have been permitted to speak on your campus."

Also on Wednesday, prior to the announcement of the reversal of the decision, St. Thomas lost a campus appearance by Lucille Clifton -- a poet who formerly taught at St. Mary's College of Maryland and was poet laureate of the State of Maryland. Clifton told St. Thomas that she would stay away from the campus to protest the treatment of Tutu.

Besides restoring Tutu's original invitation, Father Dease also said he would invite Tutu to speak at "a forum to foster constructive dialogue on the issues that have been raised.... Details about issues to be addressed will be determined later, but I would look forward to a candid discussion about how a civil and democratic society can pursue reasoned debate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and other emotionally charged issues." If Tutu accepts the invitation, he'll end up speaking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- the subject that got him barred from the campus -- even though the original appearance wasn't expected to focus on the Middle East.

More broadly, Father Dease said in his letter: "I also want to encourage a thoughtful examination of St. Thomas’ policies regarding controversial speech and controversial speakers. In the past, we have been criticized externally and internally when we have invited controversial speakers to campus -- as well as when we have not. Rather than just move from controversy to controversy, might there be a positive role that this university could play in fostering thoughtful conversation around difficult and highly charged issues? We also might explore how to more clearly express in our policies and practices our commitment to civility when discussing such issues."

One topic Father Dease did not address in his letter was the removal of Cris Toffolo, an associate professor of political science, as director of the Justice and Peace Studies Program. Toffolo retains her tenured faculty position but she and others have said she was removed from the directorship for criticizing the decision to disinvite Tutu.

Doug Hennes, vice president for university and government relations at St. Thomas, said that Toffolo was not having the directorship restored. He denied that Toffolo was removed from the position for her criticism of the original decision to block Tutu's appearance. However, Hennes acknowledged that the removal did relate to the Tutu situation. He said he could not provide any more detail because of the confidentiality of personnel matters.

Carl Mickman, student government president at St. Thomas, said that there has been "a lot of outrage" from students in the last week over the move to bar Tutu's appearance and that he and others felt "relief" that the president "was not afraid to say he made a mistake."

But Mickman said that he didn't think the statement would undo the damage to the university from PeaceJam moving to another university and from demoting Toffolo out of the program director's position. "A lot of us remain concerned," he said.

In an interview Wednesday evening, Toffolo said that "in no way" was the president's letter "a real resolution to the crisis facing the university." She noted the decision by PeaceJam and said it was "insulting" to invite Tutu without more sincere apologies for what had taken place.

As to her situation, Toffolo said that "I simply don't understand how the president can admit that his earlier decision was a mistake without also announcing he will take steps to undo all of the other harms that decision caused. If the decision was wrong, then it was wrong to remove me as the director of justice and peace studies, and to take the other punitive measures against me, which the administration has done." She added of the president's letter: "This statement is not a just resolution to the situation. It is merely a pragmatic move to avoid further pressure. It is not yet a Christian act."


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