Oct. 10: About-face: Tutu gets St. Thomas invite

  • Article by: JEFF SHELMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 22, 2007 - 8:01 PM

The president of the St. Paul university changed his mind, but it's unclear whether the Nobel laureate will appear on campus.

Desmond Tutu

Nobel peace laureate Desmond Tutu

Photo: Jason DeCrow, Associated Press

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Pressure on the University of St. Thomas began building the moment word got out that the school didn't want Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu speaking on its St. Paul campus.

The school was panned locally, nationally and internationally. There was a protest. A nationally known poet canceled an appearance.

The firestorm was enough to make St. Thomas' president, the Rev. Dennis Dease, change his mind. On Wednesday, Dease wrote a letter to the St. Thomas community that was both an abrupt about-face and an invitation to the South African cleric and activist to speak at St. Thomas.

"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," Dease wrote. "Although well-intentioned, I did not have all of the facts and points of view, but now I do."

For the past four years, St. Thomas has served as the host for PeaceJam, a weekend event featuring a Nobel laureate. When youthrive, the local affiliate for PeaceJam, approached St. Thomas with the news that it had invited the South African Anglican archbishop to speak, the Roman Catholic university decided not to host the event. St. Thomas officials said local Jewish leaders they consulted felt that Tutu had made offensive remarks in a 2002 speech about Israeli policy toward the Palestinians.

However, Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, wrote a letter to Dease that said, "while Archbishop Tutu is not a friend of Israel, we do not believe he is an anti- Semite." Foxman added that Tutu should have been permitted to speak at St. Thomas.

Now that is possible, although because of Tutu's schedule, it may not happen.

When St. Thomas backed out as the PeaceJam host, youthrive moved its April 11-13 event to Metropolitan State University in St. Paul. Donna Gillen, executive director of youthrive, said Tutu's schedule is full for that weekend, but she wouldn't rule out a St. Thomas appearance by Tutu.

Tutu's personal assistant in South Africa said the archbishop had not received an invitation and could not comment.

Dease was not available for comment beyond the letter, but spokesman Doug Hennes said, "He looked at this thing very carefully over the past week, ever since the first story came out, and decided he made the wrong decision."

St. Thomas continued to feel the impact of the original Tutu decision on Wednesday when Lucille Clifton, a National Book Award-winning poet, canceled a visit to the university. Clifton, of Columbia, Md., had been invited to appear as part of a CommUNITY Week Celebration at St. Thomas.

In a letter to Lawrence Potter, head of the university's Office of Institutional Diversity, Clifton wrote:

"It is with deep regret that I must cancel my visit. ... I have spent my life trying to be a human of integrity and hope and peace; and I find it difficult to speak and model these things in light of the situation concerning Bishop Tutu."

When told of the university's change of heart, Clifton "indicated that she might come in the spring if I wanted to invite her," Potter said. He said he thought Dease's announcement was "a good step in the right direction."

Marv Davidov, a peace activist who teaches at St. Thomas, said Dease had no choice. "He's a good guy; he made a terrible blunder, a mistake in judgment," Davidov said.

Davidov also wants Cris Toffolo reinstated as director of the university's justice and peace program. Toffolo, who pushed for the Tutu visit, remains on the faculty.

"The decision on her remains the same," Hennes said. "She was removed for how she handled the Tutu situation. She was not removed because of any private or public disagreement."

Student reaction

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